Michigan loses ground in national spending transparency survey

Michigan dropped to 15th among the 50 states for budget and spending transparency in the fifth annual U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund survey of “Following the Money” to determine spending transparency in state governments nationwide. In the 2013 report, Michigan ranked 6th. The 2014 report released April 8 says Michigan dropped from an A- rating to a B in the letter grades. The report, issued annually, monitors government transparency and website accessibility and comprehensiveness that allows citizens and others to closely track government spending. Among the areas reviewed was the ability of individuals and organizations to get a granular view of expenditures down to the checkbook and vendor level. Part of Michigan’s decline may be in the ratings process itself. PIRG raises the transparency standards each year as more states provide broader and better access to state budget data. The Office of Financial Management, State Budget Office, Department of Technology, Management and Budget maintains the website at www.michigan.gov/openmichigan. Though budgets have always been public as mandated by the Michigan Constitution, getting detailed, accurate information on actual expenditures, payments to vendors and the specific service, product, etc. being bought and paid for by taxpayer money is critically important for true transparency. The PIRG report notes that there is still plenty of room for improvement in all 50 states. One reason: “Not a single state provides checkbook-level spending information on all of its quasi-public agencies—which demand particular openness because they typically remain outside the normal checks and balances of the budget process.” PIRG also insists in its report that: “States with good transparency websites have experienced a wide variety of benefits. Transparency websites have helped governments find ways to save money and meet other public policy goals.” One such benefit, according to the PIRG Report, is by providing information online, state governments can save money in staff time and costs responding to Freedom of Information requests since the information is available and downloadable on their websites. In a press release, PIRG reported that “the leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites were Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont and Wisconsin. “Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2014” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” Grading standards rise each year, so states need to improve transparency each year to be a leader. “While many states continue to improve, the states that most distinguished themselves as leaders in spending transparency are those that provide access to types of expenditures that otherwise receive little public scrutiny. For instance, six states provide public access to checkbook-level data on the subsidy recipients for each of the state’s most important economic development programs, allowing citizens and public officials to hold subsidy recipients accountable by listing the public benefits that specific companies were expected to provide and showing the benefits they actually delivered. The most transparent states similarly provide detailed information on subsidies spent through the tax code and “off-budget” quasi-public agencies. “Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said a PIRG spokesperson. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.” MiCOG is a prime mover in the push for greater transparency and accessibility at all levels of government, state, county, local, the courts and public universities, in Michigan. MiCOG is a tax exempt, non-profit Michigan corporation. Members for individuals costs just $25. For further information, visit the website at www.miopengov.org.

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