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April 2015 Brief: Volume 22, Number 10

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Iowans Can Track Government Spending, Mostly

 

by Deborah D. Thornton

 

 

“Our predecessors have endeavored by intricacies of system and shuffling the investigation over from one office to another, to cover everything from detection. I hope we shall go in the contrary direction, and that, by our honest and judicious reformation, we may be able…to bring things back to that simple and intelligible system on which they should have been organized at first.”
– Thomas Jefferson to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, 1802[1]

 

An important component of any “honest and judicious” government is accountability and transparency, as Thomas Jefferson and others understood from the very beginning. In their report “Following the Money 2014,” the U.S. Public A minusInterest Research Group (USPIRG) ranks the 50 states in providing online access to government spending data.[2] Fortunately for the citizens of Iowa, our state government receives an “A-,” with a score of 90, one of only eight states to earn this ranking.[3] The others are Indiana, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Wisconsin, in order.

 

The premise of online transparency is that the state’s “checkbook” should provide one-stop, one-click information on payments to specific, individual companies with details on the goods and services purchased. The information should be searchable and downloadable. As of 2014, all 50 states do this, some better than others. The USPIRG report evaluated all states on both searchability and completeness of the data. The Iowa database is available at www.data.iowa.gov and maintained by the Iowa Department of Management.

 

States which significantly improved their websites between 2013 and 2014 include Indiana, North Carolina, North and South Dakota, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.[4] One of the most interesting improvements is the new “OpenBook Wisconsin” site, which provides vendor payments, is updated every two weeks, and has the data back to 2008. It provides a link to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation website, allowing citizens to track economic development subsidies and incentives.[5] Wisconsin is the only state to provide “complete information” on the results of economic development subsidies, a major accomplishment of the Scott Walker administration.

 

Providing public access provides many benefits to elected and appointed government officials and taxpayers, including finding opportunities to save money, prevent corruption, and reduce waste and abuse. For example, Iowa is one of only five states which provide information on the funds repaid by failed subsidy recipients.

 

Taxpayers can evaluate their government on contract negotiations and bid competition and identify inefficient spending. Officeholders and managers can use the site to stop the double-dipping of contracts and reduce time and money spent on information requests. Better data helps meet public policy goals, whether that is providing more opportunity for small- or women-owned businesses, tracking the results of tax credit programs, identifying winners of leases and concessions, or ensuring recipients of programs actually receive benefits.

 

Transparency websites cost very little to setup and maintain. The Iowa site cost less than $330,000 over three years to set up.[6] Computing power has become so very inexpensive that lower-level governments such as city, county, and school districts should also be required to provide their checkbooks online. In fact, New York City offers to provide “top-notch code” to small government users in an open source, non-proprietary format.[7]

 

Iowa scores well because the major economic development subsidy effort of the Branstad administration, the “High Quality Jobs Program,” though not reporting all data (because it isn’t available yet), has a system already in place to collect and report the information as projects reach completion.[8] This will provide almost real-time data as the program matures over the next few years.

 

We can improve by adding more information on the “quasi-public” agencies, such as the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA). Currently no state provides 100 percent of this data online. These agencies, according to the USPIRG report, should be included because they “typically remain outside the normal checks and balances of the budget process.”[9] Iowa earned a four of six possible points, because while some of the IEDA data is available, not all is. Checkbook-level data, download ability, and projected and actual public benefit reporting all need improvements.[10] These features are especially valuable for evaluating the success or failure of large projects such as the Iowa Fertilizer plant in Lee County.

 

Iowa should also follow the practice of South Dakota, the only state to audit their checkbook every year, verifying the accuracy of the data available, and Tennessee, which provides summary data on excluded expenditures – those such as foster care and adoption assistance, where an individual’s privacy must be protected.

 

Overall, the Branstad administration is to be commended for earning an “A-” grade. We look forward to a fully “simple and intelligible system.” Taxpayers must require city and county governments and local school boards to provide similar data. Then we will see where the real accountability lies, and if the school districts really need more tax money, or not.

 

(Endnotes)
[1] Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, editors, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition, 1903-04, Vol. 10, p. 307.
[2] Benjamin Davis and Phineas Baxandall, “Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” U.S. Public Interest Research Group, April 2014, <http://www.uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/Following%20the%20Money%20vUS%20v2_0.pdf> accessed on March 21, 2015.
[3] Ibid., p. 5.
[4] Ibid., p. 18.
[5] Ibid., p. 20.
[6] Ibid., p. 10.
[7] Ibid., p. 9.
[8] Ibid., p. 38.
[9] Ibid., p. 4.
[10] Ibid., p. 49.

 

Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at Public.Interest.Institute@LimitedGovernment.org.

 

Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.

   

 

 

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