Gazette opinion: Clear improvement in state financial transparency

2014-04-14T00:00:00Z 2014-04-14T06:19:09Z Gazette opinion: Clear improvement in state financial transparency The Billings Gazette
April 14, 2014 12:00 am

Want to know what the Board of Public Education spent on lodging for its last quarterly meeting? How much was charged on Montana state credit cards at a particular business? What the state paid out annually in “tax expenditures” for the more than 50 deductions and credits provided to individuals and corporations?

It’s all online at the Montana transparency website.

Much more information is available online since Gov. Steve Bullock directed that the state checkbook go digital when he took office in January 2013. A detailed, searchable checkbook data base went up by Feb. 1, 2013, and has allowed citizens to see exactly what the state is spending.

These changes earned Montana’s website the distinction of being the fourth most improved among the 50 states in the latest report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The nonprofit public research group released its fifth annual Follow the Money report last week.

Bullock’s changes raised Montana’s score from a D in 2013 to a B this year. Wyoming advanced from an F to a C- this year, making it the seventh most improved state.

Only eight “Leading States” got grades of A, including South Dakota.

Among Montana’s other neighbors, North Dakota received a D and Idaho an F.

‘Advancing states’

Montana is among 20 in the B range. The report called them “Advancing States” that are “advancing in online spending transparency, with spending information that is easy to access but more limited than Leading States.”

Thirty-eight states now have checkbooks online, but their user friendliness varies.

U.S. PIRG noted that Montana has improved its website “to provide centrally accessible information on tax expenditures and economic development subsidies.” It also cited the state for providing a link from its transparency site to the Department of Commerce portal so Montanans can monitor awards given to companies to grow the economy. Although this includes information on how many jobs each subsidy was expected to create, the report noted a lack of information on how many jobs actually were created.

Another credit to Bullock and his administration is the cost of this enhanced transparency. The governor asked for no additional money and funded it with the existing budget – something few other states did, according to the U.S. PIRG report. Wyoming allocated a mere $1,600 for website startup and nothing for operations, but some other states allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to start up their transparency sites.

Want to know where your Montana tax money goes? Visit transparency.mt.gov and find out.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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