3/21/12 – Two recently released studies have dealt Montana disappointing grades.

The first comes a report card put out by StateIntegrity.org, where Montana received the overall grade of a ‘D+’.

If you think that’s bad, the latter comes from the US Public Interest Research Group’s Follow The Money 2012: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data where Montana received a whopping ‘F’.

Not quite something to brag about.

Click here to read StateIntegrity.org’s “Story Behind the Score” which cites the work MPI has been doing to help reverse these grades.

 

Creating a Free, Searchable Website of State Spending

MPI shares voters’ concerns about government transparency, and whether or not those we entrust with our tax dollars will respect the people’s constitutional right to know how their money is being spent. We’re helping lay the groundwork for the state to create a budget transparency website that would place all state and local revenue and expenditure information online in a fully searchable format.

Several states and even the federal government have already taken significant steps in this direction. In 2006, the federal government enacted a law that provides a road map for states on how to allow citizens to find out about government spending. The law was co-sponsored by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL) and was passed unanimously by Congress. The new law creates a free searchable website that allows citizens to track the recipients of all federal funds. In addition, eighteen states have passed legislation to create a search capability for their spending. They all have different levels of capabilities and information, but here are some good examples:

Kansas: www.kansas.gov/kanview/

Missouri: www.mapyourtaxes.mo.gov

Arizona: www.aztreasury.gov/distributions.html

Kentucky: www.sos.ky.gov

Nebraska: www.nebraskaspending.com

The state of Montana has refused to create a spending portal during the past two legislative sessions, so MPI has started the process on our own. We’ve created the site www.opengovmt.org, which has detailed district-by-district school revenue and spending data, as well state employee pay data.

Unfortunately, not only has the state refused to tell you where your money is being spent, but they’ve also put up roadblocks to us telling you. They’ve refused to tell us, for example, how much each state employee is paid. That’s pretty simple, and since they won’t provide that data we’re suing them for it.

The Center for Fiscal Accountability has created a rundown of current state transparency portals throughout the country. Last updated in January 2010, it clearly shows what’s possible and what should be done.

In addition to state transparency portals, cities, counties, and school boards are also making their finances more open and accountable to taxpayers. Here’s a partial list of local government sites:

Milwaukee County, WI: http://mcap.milwaukeecounty.org/MAP/Portal/

Douglas County Schools, CO: www.dcsdk12.org

Jefferson County Schools, CO: www.jeffcopublicschools.org/financial_transparency/reports.php

The majority of these states are getting this information to the taxpayers with little or no fiscal impact, i.e. this is a cheap and easy thing to do, and then been passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Similar bipartisan proposals are long overdue here in Montana. Go to our BigSkySearch.info to see more great examples and answers to your questions (like how much does it cost?).

In addition to state-sponsored sites, several free market, accountable government organizations like MPI have put up web sites of their own that detail certain areas of state spending. A couple notable ones are:

North Dakota: www.sunshineonschools.org

New York: www.seethroughny.net

MPI has launched a school spending site of our own at www.SchoolsOpenMT.org. This site is the most user friendly and comprehensive source of district by district school revenue and spending information available. It’s nonjudgmental and easy to use, even allowing comparisons of up to five districts across a variety of categories.

Transparency isn’t expensive, either. A study by the Mercatus Center found that costs are almost always overestimated and generally low. We built www.SchoolsOpenMT.org for less than $20,000 and six months work. Imagine what the state could do if it wanted to.

 

For more information about state spending transparency take a look at our Policy Note:

Transparency Policy Note (PDF)

And, there’s a lot more at our transparency information site: BigSkySearch.info.

And finally, we’ll be evaluating bills that deal with transparency as they are introduced. The idea isn’t to tell people whether or not to vote for them. We want you to know what they say and whether they meet MPI’s goals for a more transparency and accountable government.