Maine earns an F in transparency

Posted April 30, 2010, at 7:25 p.m.

Recently, the state of Maine brought home yet another failing grade. This latest black mark on our transcript comes from U.S. PIRG, a federation of state Public Interest Research Groups that, according to its website, “stands up to powerful special interests on behalf of the American public.”

The group recently published “Following the Money: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” an in-depth evaluation of each state’s openness about government spending. The report found that 32 states provide an online database of government expenditures with “checkbook level” detail. Seven states were classified as “Leading States” for earning an A or B; 25 states were in the middle of the pack with a C; and four state websites earned an F.

Maine was one of 14 additional states awarded an F for having no transparency website at all.

Why is this important? According to the report, “Spending transparency checks corruption, bolsters public confidence in government and promotes fiscal responsibility.” All three are critical to effective, efficient governance and common-sense leadership.

I expect that insiders could list the websites of several Maine state agencies where financial information is posted and argue the report is unfair. Let me be clear: The report doesn’t accuse Augusta of withholding financial information from residents. But after trying to find the amount spent last year on bridge repairs in the 284-page Maine State Audit posted on the department’s website, I’d say it might as well be (hint: $76.1 million, on page 116).

Contrast this with some of the criteria U.S. PIRG used to evaluate state transparency websites:

ä Transparency websites should be a one-stop source for budget information, allowing residents to easily view local spending, investments or vendor payments.

ä Transparency websites should provide comprehensive information, user-friendly portals that allow residents to view detailed information on government contracts, tax expenditures and other subsidies and spending.

ä Transparency websites should be one-click searchable, able to search data with a single query or browse common-sense categories, and let residents sort data on government spending by recipient, amount, legislative district, granting agency, purpose or keyword.

Some months ago, I posted on my campaign website a detailed plan and vision for bringing our state government into the 21st century called “Rebooting Augusta.” In it, I propose the creation of a two-part transparency portal that meets or exceeds the U.S. PIRG criteria in several key areas. You can go to www.rosaformaine.com to read more, but the basic outline is modeled on the successful (No. 11 out of 50) state transparency website in Colorado:

ä Maine State Taxpayer Accountability Report, or MaineSTAR: an interactive and comprehensive annual overview of revenue and expenses that brings a wide range of key “headline” measures to one central location.

ä Maine Transparency Online Project, or MaineTOPS: an in-depth searchable database of current revenue and expenditures, updated daily. MaineTOPS will link together and make available the vast sea of financial data the state already has, but is now accessible only to informed insiders who know what they’re looking for and where to find it.

Like other state transparency websites featured in the report, these will be effective, low-cost tools. Texas, which spent $310,000 on its top-5 ranked site, documented $4.8 million from a variety of efficiencies and cost savings within two years. After implementing its new website, South Dakota discovered $19 million per year of redundant spending in its economic development program. The Utah State Office of Education and the Utah Tax Commission estimate they save $15,000 per year from reduced information requests alone.

I’ve done more than just talk about the transformative promise of technology. In my own business, I took over a company that was bogged down, unprofitable and tied to old, outdated ways of working. I had a generational perspective that managers who had been there for two decades did not. Through technology and with motivated and empowered people, we were able to do more with fewer resources and turn a profit within the first year.

Maine has before it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the “reboot” button and make the dramatic positive changes that will put us on the right track and help ensure the prosperous future of all Maine people. We cannot bring our state into the 21st century world economy with 19th century ways of governing. As governor, I will lead our state with the energy and fresh approach we need to leave the old ways behind and move Maine forward.

Rosa Scarcelli is chief executive officer of Stanford Management, a property management company. She is a Democratic candidate for governor.

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