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TRENTON, March 14 – New Jersey received a “C+” 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 New Jersey Public Interest Research Group (NJPIRG).
“State governments across the country continue to be more transparent about where the money goes, extending checkbook-level disclosure of data on spending to contracting, tax subsidies, development incentives and other expenditures,” said Jen Kim, Advocate at NJPIRG, “New Jersey has made it out of the Stone Age,” said Kim, “but there’s still much more that can and should be done to improve transparency.”
New Jersey has not made progress since scoring a “C+” last year, although that was a marked increase from the previous year’s “F” grade. “New Jersey had been one of the states that made the most progress last year, but falls short in becoming a leader in transparency,” said Kim.
Officials from New Jersey and 46 other states provided the researchers with feedback on 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 an 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 New Jersey as an "emerging state," but still not a leader due to serious deficiencies. For example, the state's website does not post contracts or post summary information for each expenditure.
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.
New Jersey lost points by not having copies of contracts or detailed summary information included in the expenditure information. The state also did not receive full credit for their tax expenditure reports. States with full scores had easy to find, comprehensive tax expenditure reports from recent years for the sales, property, and income taxes.
New Jersey did receive full points for having a checkbook-level website that can be easily searched by vendor name, keyword or activity, or agency or department.
This year’s report found that 46 states, including New Jersey, 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.
Said Kim, “Citizens expect information to be at their fingertips the way they can view their cellphone minutes or the location of a package. 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 on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. Eight states have launched brand 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 New Jersey should continually improve access to online information about government spending.” said Kim. “Given our state budget problems, New Jerseyans need to be able to follow the money.”
To read the report, click here.
NJPIRG, the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, is a non-profit, non-partisan, statewide consumer group. For more information go to www.njpirg.org
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