June 17, 2018
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Maine’s government transparency improves by full letter grade, according to national report

By Robert Long, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine state government’s online “transparency” grade rose from D-minus to C-minus during the past year, according to a national report issued Tuesday.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund’s fourth annual report, “ Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” grades all 50 states on how easy their websites are to use in determining how state government spends its money. Grades are based on whether website users can view the payments made to individual companies and details about the goods or services purchased.

Maine’s improvement ranked among the top 10 in 2013, according to the research group, which attributed the state’s progress to the January 2013 launch of Maine Open Checkbook, a website that allows users to track state expenditures for 2012. The report lists the start-up cost for the website to be $30,000.

“State governments across the country have become more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and businesses that receive public funds accountable,” Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said in a prepared statement. “But Maine still has a long way to go.”

The state’s improved grade and Baxandall’s observation that more must be done drew agreement from two sources that don’t often find themselves in accord: Maine Gov. Paul LePage and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

LePage is pleased Maine Open Checkbook “produced such positive results in such a short time” and that the state’s efforts during the past year were recognized as among the 10 most improved, according to Peter Steele, a spokesman for the governor.

“The idea behind Maine Open Checkbook was very simple: Every Maine citizen has a right to know how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “Maine is facing tough budget choices, and this website helps educate both citizens and legislators about where their money goes. The better informed they are, the better public policy we can create to meet the state’s financial challenges.”

“We’re glad to see an increase in government transparency since last year, but we can’t stop now,” Rachel Healey, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said in an email. “Democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and the process of running our state should be as open to public review and input as possible. Maine can do better than a C-minus.”

The report praises Maine Open Checkbook for providing “searchable and checkbook-level data on contracts, non-contract spending and economic development tax credits in an easy-to-use format.” However, it faults the website for failing to offer information on grants, economic development subsidies and budgets for agencies such as the Maine Turnpike Authority.

The website will be expanded to include revenue data and more details related to budget expenses, Steele said.

Maine ranks 37th overall among the 50 U.S. states, the same as last year, but up from its place at the bottom of the list in 2011. The state’s C-minus grade places it with 21 other states in the “emerging” category. Maine’s numeric score is 68, the same as Kansas. Last year, Maine scored a 54.

Texas earned the highest numeric grade, 96, followed by Massachusetts, which score 93 points. North Dakota received the lowest score, 31. California, Hawaii, Wyoming and Wisconsin also received F marks.

New Hampshire scored a B-plus with 80.5, while Vermont earned a C-plus with 77 points.

The report notes that 2013 is the first year that all 50 states offer “some checkbook-level information on state spending via the Internet.” All but two states, California and Vermont, provide that information in a searchable format.

“The state of Maine should build upon this year’s progress and further improve the breadth and ease-of-access of online government spending information,” said Baxandall. “Given the state’s difficult budget choices, Mainers need to be able to follow the money.”

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