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New Jersey 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 New Jersey Public Interest Research Group Law and Policy Center. New Jersey's grade improved since last year, jumping from a C+ to this year's B.
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.
“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,” said XXPIRGerXX, with New Jersey Public Interest Research Group Law and Policy Center. "New Jersey has improved somewhat, and is on the way to becoming a leader."
Officials from New Jersey 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.
New Jersey is now an “advancing” state in the report, improved somewhat since last year. The Garden State particularly excels in quasi-public agency transparency, and includes a page dedicated to some of the state’s most prominent quasi-public entities on its main web portal. To be a leader in budget transparency next year, the state should reach a similar level of data disclosure for all economic development subsidies.
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. New Jersey officials reported that their transparency portal cost $372,667 for the initial purchase and switchover to new software and costs $118,495 in employee time annually. The state expects costs to decrease going forward now that the software switch has been implemented fully.
"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.”
New Jersey’s transparency website is operated by the New Jersey Office of the Treasurer. To visit it, click here: yourmoney.nj.gov
To read the full report: http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/following-money-2015
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