Illinois gets ‘B-’ in annual report on transparency in government spending

Online Staff Report

CHICAGO — Illinois received a “B-” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2012: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the third annual report of its kind by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (Illinois PIRG).

Brian Imus, state director with Illinois PIRG, explained: “State governments across the country continue to be more transparent about where our tax money goes, extending checkbook-level disclosure of data on spending to contracting, tax subsidies, development incentives and other expenditures. But Illinois still has plenty of room for improvement.”

Officials from Illinois and 46 other states provided the researchers with feedback about their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Arizona.

Based on inventory of the content and accessibility of states’ transparency websites, “Following the Money 2012” assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The report describes Illinois as an “emerging state,” but still not a leader because of serious deficiencies. For example, Illinois’ website lacks comprehensive contract information and links to local government budgets.

The good news is that Illinois is currently the only state that provides, through its transparency website, information about both the projected benefits and the actual benefits created from economic development subsidies.

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 about government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits — up from eight states two years ago.

Citizens expect information to be at their fingertips the way they can view their cellphone minutes or the location of a package,” Imus said. “Putting spending information online helps hold government accountable and allows taxpayers to see where the money goes.”

The states with the most transparent spending generally include data about economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. Eight states have launched new transparency websites or online tools since last year’s report. Many more have made improvements to existing websites that are documented in the report. The best state transparency tools were highly searchable, engaged citizens and included detailed usable information.

States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. In fact, states with top-flight transparency websites actually save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government, and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.

The state of Illinois should continually improve access to online information about government spending,” Imus said. “Given our state budget problems, Illinoisans need to be able to follow the money.”

Posted March 15, 2012

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