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Maryland received a “B+” 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 Maryland Public Interest Research Group Foundation.
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.
In 2014, the Maryland General Assembly established the Council for Open Data, to increase public access to public information.
“Maryland has made its budget more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” said Emily Scarr, Director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. “We’re eager to see recommendations from the Maryland Council for Open Data put into action, and hope the Council can help Maryland catch up with other states on data transparency.”
Officials from Maryland 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.
Maryland is characterized as an “advancing” state in the report, making slight improvements to its budget transparency site since last year. The state has expanded the comprehensiveness and usability of its data for some of its five largest economic development subsidies, allowing users to download such information in bulk for easier analysis. The state still doesn’t allow users to search the online checkbook by keyword, which is a features that ensures citizens can find relevant information even when they don’t know exactly what they are looking for.
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 and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts. Maryland officials reported that their transparency portal cost $65,000 at launch and costs $5,000 annually.
"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 state of Ohio topped the rankings, climbing from a “D-” in 2014 to an “A+” this year for its improvements to the Online Checkbook transparency portal. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel said, “I’m proud to have built OhioCheckbook.com and taken Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation. 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.”
Maryland’s transparency website is operated by the Maryland Department of Budget and Management. To visit it, click here: spending.dbm.maryland.gov
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