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Maryland PIRG Foundation
Carroll County Times
Alex Jackson

Some lawmakers hope legislation passed this year will move Maryland out of the middle of the pack when it comes to government spending transparency.

The fifth annual report on government spending transparency released last week by Maryland PIRG Foundation gave the Old Line State a B-, up from a C last year.

Maryland, the foundation’s report said, improved its score by providing more information on the benefits of tax credits, including the state’s film tax credit.

But unlike the leading states, Maryland doesn’t allow keyword searches of its checkbook-level data, the report said.

Del. Pam Beidle, D-Linthicum, was a sponsor of Senate Bill 644’s companion bill in the House. The legislation was signed by Gov. Martin O’Malley on Tuesday.

The law, which takes effect June 1, will establish a 37-member Open Data Council to promote making all government data and documents available online in searchable, machine-readable formats.

Beidle said the state still hasn’t reached full transparency, but the new law will help.

“A B- isn’t awful, but of course we want to be an A,” she said. “We want people to see where we’re spending the money. People don’t want to feel like their tax dollars are being wasted. It’s a big job, though.”

While Maryland PIRG ranked Maryland as one of 20 “advancing states,” eight “leading states” did better in providing access to otherwise unscrutinized areas of spending, the nonprofit public interest research group said.

Six states provide public access to data on the subsidy recipients of each of the states’ most important economic development programs, Maryland PIRG said. The data list the public benefits that specific companies were expected to provide and show the benefits they actually delivered.

Maryland provides this data only for some of these programs, the foundation said.

Del. Herb McMillan, R-Annapolis, led a push this year for other legislation to require corporations that receive at least $50,000 in state subsidies to file a disclosure report.

The reports, which would be posted online each year, would show how much money a business receives from the state in the form of loans, loan guarantees, fee waivers, matching funds, tax abatements, tax exemptions and tax credits.

The reports would have also said how much a business’ top executives make annually and where the state money businesses received was spent.

McMillan’s legislation passed in the House but failed in the Senate.

Still, lawmakers took “baby steps” toward more serious reform, said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, an advocacy organization that works to make political institutions accountable.

One such step will be setting up the Open Data Council, Bevan-Dangel said.

“Clearly the legislature is recognizing transparency is a problem and they’re looking for ways to make it better,” Bevan-Dangel said. “But the devil will be in how they implement these changes as we move forward.”

Under the provisions of the new law, the council will meet twice a year and provide guidance and recommendations for legislation.

The council will look at “promotion, advertising and marketing of open data,” along with “best practices for sharing open data,” according to the legislation.

But Bevan-Dangel said the key will be whether the council views its role as “How do we take some of the data that’s already publicly available and make it easier to find?” or “How do we ensure every public document is made publicly available and easy to find?”

“If they go the second route, I think you could see us really turning the corner on transparency issues,” she said.

In an op-ed for the Huffington Post on Thursday, O’Malley wrote about the importance of open data, Maryland’s implementation of his StateStat program and how he believed the availability of data helped the state drive down its infant mortality rate.

“People’s trust in their public institutions depends on their government getting results,” O’Malley wrote.

“Analysis of this ‘big data’ is our next opportunity in the evolution towards a democracy that is less ideological, and more entrepreneurial, collaborative, interactive and performance-driven — government that is about results.”

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