March 18, 2011

Maryland gets a C in online government spending transparency

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Maryland state government earns a C in a new report on government transparency websites done by the Maryland PIRG , which said the state has inadequate spending transparency online.

The report, which looked at the Maryland Funding Accountability and Transparency website maintained by the Department of Budget and Management, gave Maryland a score of 71 out of 100. It ranked right in the middle of all the states for the information available and ease of use. The report said that Maryland was not a transparency leader, and was instead “emerging, but still not a leader due to serious deficiencies.”

This is the second year PIRG has done this report. Last year, Maryland also received a C.

“While there has been a lot of talk about increasing transparency, there has not been a lot of action,” said Carly Mercer, an associate at Maryland PIRG. “We need to do better. We’re doing the same.”

The report set the ideal goal as a state website exercising what it called “transparency 2.0.” This ideal site would have information readily available about contracts, spending, subsidies and tax expenditures. Everything would be available on one website. Searching would be intuitive, with a keyword search and logical sorting by categories. Information could be downloaded for analyzing offline.

The report graded whether the website had “checkbook-level” information, meaning that expenditures were detailed to show exact payments to named vendors. It also looked at whether records could be searched by a contractor’s name or particular activity, and whether the contracts themselves were available on the website.

States got more points if their data could be downloaded in a spreadsheet format, and if they kept contracts and expenditures from previous years on the website. It looked at tax expenditure reports and whether they were easy to find, if they included information from prior years, if they explained exemptions, and if they were had all forms of taxes: sales, property and income. States also got credit for including information on economic development incentives and grants, whether users could leave feedback, if expenditures from quasi-public entities were included, and whether the sites linked to federal stimulus spending or state and county government spending sites.

Maryland lost points for not having many contracts available on the website. The site contains grant information, but lost points for having no easy way of determining how the funds are spent, or the incentives or outcomes of the grant.

Points were taken away because there is no past year tax information, and the tax expenditures are not explained. Maryland received no points in several categories because users are not able to search by activity, download information, or connect to county or local spending information.

While there is a lot of talk in Annapolis about improving transparency, Mercer said there have been no specific proposals to fix any of the issues found in the report. However, she said, a bill proposed by Del. Heather Mizeur in the House and by Sen. Bill Ferguson in the Senate would establish a Joint Committee on Open Government and Transparency. This committee would review transparency issues in state government and make policy recommendations, and could use reports like this one from PIRG to craft policy, Mercer said.

Comittees in both houses held hearings on the bills in the past week.

Representatives from the Department of Budget and Management did not return calls for comment on the report.