Iowa gets "F" for transparency on state government spending

Iowa is one of five states to receive a failing grade in the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund’s new report, Following the Money 2012: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data. The full report is here (pdf). I’ve posted highlights and excerpts after the jump.

Table ES-1 on page 5 of this pdf file shows the letter grades and transparency scores for all 50 states. A more detailed scorecard showing the points for each state in each category is on pages 48 and 49. Appendix B (pages 50 through 61) explains the report’s methodology. Here’s where Iowa received points:

Iowa: (1) Received five points for “Contract or Summary Information” because the site contains pre-purchase orders, which establish a set price at which the government can buy a specific good or service. (2) Received four points for “Grants and Economic Development Incentives” because incentives awarded to private entities are included. (From the main page, select “Tax Credit Information” under “Taxes,” and company-specific data is available in the annual reports.) (3) Received seven points for “Tax Expenditure Reports”: 3/3 for Accessibility, 1/3 for History, 3/3 Comprehensiveness, 0/1 for Purpose. (4) Received one point for “Feedback” because visitors are given contact information but are not invited to give feedback.

From the report’s section on failing states (page 36):

The other Failing states-Arkansas, Montana, Idaho, and Iowa-have transparency portals or other spending information sites that are not checkbook-level and provide limited or superficial information about government expenditures. Aside from Iowa’s data on tax expenditures and economic development grants, these states have little information beyond copies of pre-purchase orders that allow citizens to monitor whether or not a government department would be overpaying for a certain good or service if they purchased this way.

Excerpt from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Following the Money 2012 report summary:

In order to assess states’ progress toward the standards of Transparency 2.0, each state’s transparency website was analyzed and assigned a grade from zero to 100, based on 13 scoring criteria measuring searchability and the breadth of information provided.  Assigning these numbers to more familiar “A” to “F” grades makes it possible to describe five types of states.

* Leading states (“A” range): Seven states have established user-friendly transparency portals that contain comprehensive information on government expenditures. Citizens and watchdog groups can use the sites to monitor government spending quickly and easily. Among the most distinctive features of Leading states’ transparency websites is the ability to compare state expenditures over time.

* Advancing states (“B” range): Fourteen states have established websites that are user-friendly and searchable, but lack the breadth of information characteristic of the Leading states. Eleven Advancing states provide only limited information on the goods or services purchased because they do not provide copies of all contracts, while eight do not provide descriptions on grants and economic development incentives administered by the state.

* Emerging states (“C” range): Fourteen states’ websites have checkbook-level detail and are easily searchable, but are far less comprehensive – in terms of checkbook detail, information on city and county spending, and tax expenditure data – than Leading or Advancing states.

* Lagging states (“D” range): Ten states’ online checkbooks are difficult to use. Their sites rarely provide spending details for off-budget agencies, post information on state revenue forgone through tax expenditures, or link to city and county expenditure sites.

* Failing states (“F”): Five states are failing in online transparency. Most Failing states have not posted their checkbooks online or provided other important information that allows residents to monitor state spending.

Government spending transparency is not a partisan cause. As was the case at the outset of 2010 and 2011, Democratic and Republican-leaning states perform equally well when it comes to transparency this year. The average score for a Democratic-leaning state (determined by political party of the current governor) was 70.2, while that of a Republican-leaning state was 68.9, a difference of less than two points. Among the seven states that scored an “A” or “A-” , 3 have Democratic governors and four have Republican governors. Among the five states that received an F, two have Democratic governors and three have Republican governors. […]

All states, including Leading states, have many opportunities to improve their transparency websites.

* Only one state – Illinois – provides information on both the projected benefits and the actual benefits created from economic development subsidies.

* Only six states provide visitors with copies of all contracts between a vendor and the state.

* Only six states provide copies of tax expenditure reports that include the purpose of each expenditure program. In addition, only 24 states provide tax expenditure reports that include expenditure information for all of the significant major tax types (sales, income and property) that may be affected by tax expenditures.

* Only 26 states include any information about expenditures or revenue collected by quasi-public agencies or public-private partnerships.

* Only 20 states provide access to any level of information about city and county spending, and rarely is this information checkbook-level.

* Four states – Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, and Montana – have yet to post their checkbooks online.

A companion press release from Iowa PIRG notes,

Last year, Iowa’s lawmakers passed legislation to begin developing a searchable website to track government spending. The website is currently still under construction and is not expected to be completed by the end of this year. Iowa PIRG intends to work with the Department of Management as Iowa’s new website is developed, an effort that will help improve Iowa’s grade for next year’s Following the Money report.

“We still have a lot of catching up to do,” said [Iowa PIRG Advocate Sonia] Ashe.

Since last year’s Following the Money report, there has been remarkable progress across the country with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to government spending information.  

This year’s report found that 46 states now provide an online database of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail, a major increase from 32 states two years ago. Twenty nine state transparency websites now provide information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits – up from eight states two years ago.

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