Its lack of financial transparency left Maine’s state government with a D- this year in a leading national consumer watchdog group’s study of U.S. state government Internet sites released Wednesday.
And that is a big improvement, according to U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups.
The group annually evaluates state government websites to see how well they provide online access to government spending data. This year’s evaluation jumped Maine from dead last — or an F grade — to 37th among the 50 states, said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst for tax and budget policy at U.S. PIRG.
“Maine has sort of gone from making no effort to making a pale effort,” Baxandall said Wednesday.
Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, referred comment on the PIRG evaluation to Commissioner Sawin Millett Jr. of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. He did not immediately return a telephone message.
Govermental transparency, or the lack of it, has been an issue of late since the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee approved an amended bill Tuesday that would make the governor’s working papers off-limits to the Freedom of Access Act.
The governor’s office drafted the bill, LD 1805, in response to a flood of broad FOAA requests last year but also in part to afford the governor the same exemption lawmakers enjoy. Working papers include reports, drafts, internal memoranda and similar material.
All Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voted for the bill and Rep. Charles Priest, D-Brunswick, joined them. The remaining Democrats and independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth voted against it. The bill now is in the hands of the House and Senate.
PIRG’s inventory of the content and accessibility of the transparency of state websites, a report titled “ Following the Money 2012,” evaluated what Baxandall called the “checkbook-level” disclosure of data on the Maine Controller’s website, http://www.maine.gov/osc/index.shtml.
“We were looking to see how comprehensive the information there is,” Baxandall said. “How searchable is it? Does it include a variety of types of spending? Not just spending on contracts, but also spending on tax credits, subsidies and other things. Does it provide information on past years for historical comparison? Does it allow people to download information to do more comprehensive analysis, and does it provide ways for people to provide input to the keepers of this data?”
Since last year, the LePage administration has added spending information to the website, but some serious deficiencies remain, said Ilya Slavinski, New England field associate at U.S. PIRG. As an example, expenditure information is not searchable by vendor, keyword or activity and lacks contract information for each expenditure, he said.
The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency are No. 1-ranked Texas, then Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Arizona.
The best state sites generally include data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code and quasi-public agencies. Maine’s grade improved because it launched brand new transparency websites or online tools since last year’s report, Slavinski said.
Maine is among eight states, including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, California, Alaska, Wisconsin and Tennessee, that got a D-. Idaho was ranked dead last, with Montana, Arkansas, Iowa and Wyoming ahead of it, though all got an F.
Maine lags behind other states because its online checkbook is difficult to use and has not kept pace with advancing transparency standards, Slavinski said.
“Citizens expect information to be at their fingertips the way they can view their cellphone minutes or the location of a package. Putting spending information online helps hold government accountable and allows taxpayers to see where the money goes,” he said in a statement.
The report cites 46 states now providing checkbook-level transparency, compared to 32 two years ago. PIRG officials claim that it typically doesn’t cost much to improve online transparency. The most transparent sites actually save taxpayer money, help restore public confidence in government and prevent misspending, they said.
Maine “should continually improve access to online information about government spending,” Savinski said. “Given the state’s budget problems, Mainers need to be able to follow the money.”