As taxpayers, our attention to government spending is typically peaked this time of year.
The good news is that Arizona and every other state offers at least a basic website for accessing information about state government spending, and many states now provide citizens with sophisticated and user-friendly online platforms for searching through that data. The Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s annual Following the Money report highlights how states collectively present hundreds of billions of dollars of state spending in great detail online and increasingly provide information on state expenditures that occur indirectly or through “off-budget” government entities and county and municipal entities.
Government spending transparency websites give citizens and government officials the ability to monitor many aspects of state spending in order to save taxpayers money, realize more efficient government administration, enjoy more competitive bidding for public projects, and spend less staff time on information requests. Transparency websites also help citizen watchdogs and journalists ensure that government contractors and vendors deliver goods or services at a reasonable price, and allow for public scrutiny of economic development subsidies.
Best practices for government spending transparency calls for websites that are comprehensive, one-stop and one-click.
• Comprehensive transparency websites offer broad and detailed spending information, and help citizens answer three key questions: how much does the government spend on particular goods and services, which companies receive public funds for goods and services, and what results are achieved by specific expenditures? Topflight transparency websites empower citizens to answer questions for every major category of state spending including subsidies such as tax credits for economic development, quasi-public agencies, and leases and concessions to private companies.
• With one-stop transparency, residents and public officials can access comprehensive information on direct spending, contracts, tax expenditures and other subsidies from a single starting point. One-stop transparency is particularly important for public oversight of subsidies which come in a dizzying variety of forms – including direct cash transfers, loans, equity investments, contributions of property or infrastructure, reductions or deferrals of taxes or fees, guarantees of loans or leases, and preferential use of government facilities.
• States that follow the best transparency standards allow residents to browse information by recipient, agency or category, to make directed keyword and field searches and to easily download and sort data with a single click of the mouse.
When it comes to making the state’s spending transparent online, Arizona has made great strides. However, to keep step with providing information that can improve efficiency, save money for taxpayers and foster public confidence in government, Arizona needs to pick up the pace and provide data for economic development subsidies. While Arizona provides comprehensive information about its largest economic development subsidy, the Arizona Competes Fund, the state doesn’t provide the same level of data for its other large subsidy programs.
To learn more, please go to arizonapirgedfund.org and download Following the Money 2016: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data. Arizona’s transparency website is openbooks.az.gov
Diane E. Brown is the Executive Director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. The Arizona PIRG Education Fund conducts research and education on issues in the public interest.