RI Rated Among Worst in Country for Government Transparency
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Rhode Island is one of the worst states in the country for providing online access to information about government spending, according to the new study published by researchers at the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).
The report graded all 50 states based on the characteristics of the online transparency systems they have created to provide information on contracts, subsidies and spending at quasi-public agencies.
The Ocean State’s grade: D-minus.
“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 Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst for Tax and Budget Policy at U.S. PIRG and co-author of the report. “But most states still have a lot of room for improvement.”
Failure to Improve
Rhode Island was among 13 states given a D-minus or an F. Among New England states, Vermont and New Hampshire joined the Ocean State with near-failing grades while Massachusetts and Connecticut received an A-minus and a B, respectively.
Rhode Island overall transparency score was a 49, down 17 points from 2011. The report noted that the state “failed to make its checkbook searchable by the purchasing department or agency, a criterion added this year.”
“Although Rhode Island did not take down any important datasets, it similarly failed to improve the searchability of the payments the state makes to vendors and slipped backwards in the rankings amid improving standards,” the report said.
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 on 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 cell phone minutes or the location of a package,” Baxandall said. “Putting spending information online helps hold government accountable and allows taxpayers to see where the money goes.”
Common Cause Reacts
But Common Cause executive director John Marion said he believes the Ocean State’s poor grade is “a little misleading.”
“Rhode Island scores low, in part, because other states have made advancements we have not,” Marion said. “It would be nice if we were a leader in this area, but I think it is a little bit unfair for us to be penalized for not moving fast enough.”
He said the lack of county government in Rhode Island and demerits for technical features on the state’s website likely played too much of a role in the report card.
Still, Marion said this report shows that the state still has “a ways to go” before achieving true transparency on revenues and expenditures. He said he was particularly concerned about the lack of information about quasi-public agencies.
“As we know, quasi-public agencies have been a consistent source of controversy in this state,” Marion said. “From the vast fraud and waste that has been chronicled at Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, to the salaries at the Airport Corporation that have been shown to be out of line with peers, spending by our quasi-public agencies needs greater, not less, scrutiny.”
Marion also said the lack of information about economic development incentives and tax expenditures should be made public.
“We hope the Chafee administration makes it a priority to take these rankings into consideration and make many of the needed improvements,” he said.
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