March 26, 2013

Transparency group gives Maine a C- for public spending data

The grade is a notch above the 'D-' it received in 2012 and follows Gov. Paul LePage's creation of Maine Open Checkbook.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The state has received a grade of C-minus for the way it lets the public know how it spends money.

The grade, issued by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a national transparency organization, is a notch above the D-minus that the state received in 2012. The group classified Maine as an emerging state in online transparency for state spending.

The ranking is the fourth by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. It is in its report "Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data."

"State governments across the country have become more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and businesses that receive public funds accountable," Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said in a news release. "But Maine still has a long way to go."

The organization cited several other states as having the most comprehensive websites, including Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Oklahoma.

It said Maine's improvement is based partially on Gov. Paul LePage's creation of the Maine Open Checkbook site, a searchable database of contracts, noncontract spending and other state spending.

The group said Open Checkbook is easy to use, but it "fails to provide information on the projected and achieved benefits of economic development subsidies or detailed spending information for off-budget agencies, such as the (Maine Turnpike Authority)."

"While it has room for improvement, the new website is a significant step toward greater spending transparency in Maine," the group said.

LePage said in a prepared statement that the website has had more than 100,000 visitors. "I campaigned on a pledge to provide more transparency in state government, and I am pleased to see that U.S. PIRG has recognized the efforts of my administration," the governor said.

The group said 48 states provide searchable spending data. In California and Vermont, the data is not searchable. The total is an improvement from three years ago, when 32 states provided such information, but only 29 made it searchable.

"Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government," said Baxandall. "It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible."

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
smistler@pressherald.com
On Twitter: @stevemistler

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