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Ohio received an “A+” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the sixth annual report of its kind by the Ohio Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. Ohio's grade improved significantly since last year, jumping from a D- to the first A+ in the history of this report.
“This year, most states have continued to make their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars. Ohio has become a national leader in spending transparency. The improvement from a D minus last year to an A+ speaks for itself,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and its local affiliate, the Ohio Public Interest Research Group.
This year’s report recognized more states as leaders than ever before, with all but two states allowing users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor, or some combination of the three. Likewise, 44 states now provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs. Some states have even innovated entirely new features.
“I’m proud to have built OhioCheckbook.com and taken Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation,” said Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. “The work U.S. PIRG’s doing on open government is helping set off a national race for transparency. My office was motivated to participate in this race and we will continue to work with U.S. PIRG and others to empower taxpayers to hold public officials accountable. ”
Officials from Ohio and 46 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2015” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, New York, Texas, and South Dakota.
No state has improved more in one year than Ohio. Ohio’s entirely new, state-of-the-art site incorporates all of the features typically found in leading transparency sites, and also includes cutting edge functionality and usability. This site, created and managed by the Office of the Ohio Treasurer, cost $814,000 to launch, all of which was covered by the office’s existing budget. In just the first few months, users conducted over 100,000 searches. In addition to meeting the best practices examined in the report, Ohio’s new site is highly user-friendly, with search features that auto-complete phrases and a wealth of interactive graphs and charts that allow users to explore spending on multiple levels.
All states in the report have room for improvement. Ohio is a leader in listing its mostly “off-budget” agencies like the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority or the Racing Commission. Many states fail to report on these quasi-public agencies altogether, which is a problem because most of these entities have their own revenue sources and their finances mostly fall outside the scrutiny of the normal budgetary process. Like most other states, Ohio does not yet report on spending by government entities like the Ohio Turnpike Authority that are wholly self-supporting. Integrating spending information about those entities as well as that of the state’s public-private partnerships, would be positive steps for the future.
“As other leading states have learned in past years, Ohio will need to continue innovating and improving their online transparency systems to stay ahead of the pack. Best practices advance every year,” said Baxandall.
States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. In fact, top-flight transparency websites can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.
"Open and accessible state budgets are important so that the public can see where its tax dollars are being spent, and hold their state government accountable for its decisions," said Sunlight Foundation National Policy Manager Emily Shaw. "It's encouraging to see more states prioritizing open data policies and taking the steps necessary to make their data truly accessible."
State spending transparency appears to be a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of state legislative, gubernatorial or public opinion partisanship and found that neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure. The same has been true in past years of the report.
Ohio’s transparency website is operated by the Ohio Treasurer’s Department. To visit it, click here: www.ohiotreasurer.gov/transparency/home
To read the full report: http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/following-money-2015
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