State Web site to offer greater transparency

Posted Oct. 25, 2009, at 6:02 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 26, 2010, at 7:19 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine government Web site is in the works that will allow public access to state spending data.

The site likely will be modeled on the Web site that tracks spending through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That site, at www.maine.gov/recovery, was required by Congress.

“The governor has made it clear he wants more transparency for state spending like we are doing with the Recovery Act spending,” Finance Commissioner Ryan Low said. “He’s been talking about this for a while.”

Last week the state unveiled the first of the regular reports it is required to file with federal officials and to post on the state Recovery Act Web site, which was developed with administrative funds from the Recovery Act.

Low said the site could serve as a model for a state Web site that tracks state government spending.

“We are already collecting the information on spending; we need to come up with a way to move that over to a public Web site so people can see how state funds are being spent,” Low said. “I will give the [Maine] Heritage Policy [Center] folks some credit — and that doesn’t happen very often — but here is an example. They have put a lot of this information up on their Web site.”

The Maine Heritage Policy Center created a Web site over a year ago that lists a lot of information about state and local government spending. The information was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act but does not list all of the billions of dollars in state and local spending that occurs each year.

“This is great news,” said Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the center. “I guess you could say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

He said the more information that is disclosed and open to the public through a Web site, the better. He said a state Web site would not affect the current site the center operates at www.maineopengov.org, because it has features to make access to the data “user-friendly” while most government Web sites are not very user-friendly.

“The information is there on government sites, but hard for the average citizen to find,” he said. “We have tools to help people find what they are looking for.”

Low said the federal Recovery Act site is set up to meet the requirements of that law, and acknowledged that the federal site design will have to be modified for state use.

“In some ways, that will be easier to do than following their instructions, which kept changing,” he said. “But we can use a lot of what we have developed to establish a state-only site.”

Low said the feds are still making changes to the instructions they send to the state so it will be winter before he starts looking at ways to implement the state spending site. The effort has bipartisan support among members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

“I have the opportunity, on this committee, to look at it in a level of detail,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chair of the panel. “The average person in Maine does not have easily accessible information that really gets them to the level of saying ‘that’s where that dollar went, that’s what the impact was and how it affected me and my community.’”

She said there is strong support for more transparency in state spending. She said that while the information is all public, it is not in a form that is easily available to most Mainers. The Recovery Act site provides the opportunity for Mainers to see detailed information about not only the dollar amounts being spent under the law, but also the number of jobs being created or maintained by the spending, Cain said.

“I want to make sure we not just have numbers. It’s important we provide information on programs and how they work,” she said.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the only GOP senator on the committee, said that while it is important to have full disclosure of spending, the federal Web site may not prove to be the best template to use.

“A variety of state programs exist that provide a public function but may not have a component of job creation,” he said.

Rosen said using what has been created is a good start. He said right now it is difficult for Mainers to get a full picture of how tax money is being spent. For example, there are more state-paid highway projects than those paid for by the Recovery Act, but taxpayers can only find detailed information about the Recovery Act spending.

A copy of “The Recovery Act At Work In Maine” is available at www.maine.gov/recovery/governors_report.shtml.

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