Gov. Rick Scott (center) with Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park (left) and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island (Pic via flgov.com)

A public policy group released research today that finds the state of Florida is still falling behind other states in terms of  budget transparency, despite recent improvements to the state’s transparency website.

Florida Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released its third report evaluating state transparency websites today. According to a press release, the group collaborated with “officials from Florida and 46 other states,” to analyze state transparency websites nationwide. The group analyzed how transparent states are in sharing “where the money goes, extending checkbook-level disclosure of data on spending to contracting, tax subsidies, development incentives and other expenditures on one-stop state transparency website portals.”

The report explains that:

The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending promotes fiscal responsibility, checks corruption, and bolsters public confidence.
In the past few years, state governments across the country have made their checkbooks transparent by creating online transparency portals.

These government-operated websites allow visitors to view the government’s checkbook—who receives state money, how much, and for what purposes. Most of these websites are also searchable, making it easier for residents to follow the money and monitor government spending of many sorts. Today almost every state operates a transparency website with the state’s checkbook accessible to the public.

The report (.pdf) finds that, even though Florida has made some improvements to its transparency, the state still has a lot of work to do.

According to a press release from the group:

“In Florida, we have some good news and some bad news to report regarding Transparency Florida,” said Brad Ashwell, Florida PIRG Advocate. “The bad news is that Florida still gets a D. But the good news is that the state has made progress.”

“The CFO’s office has incorporated some very important additions since last year, partly due to the criteria used in last year’s Follow The Money report, and they deserve credit for that. But as evidenced by the grade there is still a long way to go before Florida is a leading state in budget transparency,” said Ashwell.

In the report, Florida garnered a 59 percent rating, while Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Arizona received point totals of 90 and higher for their websites.

Florida PIRG, and the researchers the group collaborated with, called Florida a “‘lagging state’ because its online checkbook has failed to keep pace with advancing standards of transparency.”

“For example,” the group explains in its press release, “the website is difficult to use, does not allow visitors to search expenditures by keyword or activity, tax expenditures, or off-budget agencies.”

Researchers reported that, if states such as Florida were interested in improving their transparency, they could:

  • provide visitors with copies of all contracts between a vendor and the state,
  • provide copies of tax expenditure reports that include the purpose of the expenditures,
  • include any information about expenditures or revenue collected by quasi-public agencies or public-private partnerships,
  • provide access to any level of information about city and county spending,
  • and post their checkbooks online as well.

The report also suggested that states be more transparent about whether money given to companies in the form of subsidies actually create the jobs they are supposed to create.

According to Florida PIRG’s report:

Only one state—Illinois—provides information on both the projected number of jobs to be created and the actual number of jobs (or other societal benefits) created from economic development subsidies. While eight states provide information on the projected number of jobs created and two states provide information on the actual number of jobs created—these states provide only half of the information necessary to hold companies fully accountable and reclaim funds if promises are not kept. The other 39 states provide no data on the societal benefits of subsidies, leaving taxpayers completely unable to assess the utility of the subsidies.

Progressives in Florida recently won a battle over this very issue during the recently-ended Legislative session. Last week, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos committed to including “a formal study reviewing the effectiveness of economy development incentives, tax credits, exemptions, and subsidies,” in the state’s economic incentives bill, which is now on its way to the governor’s desk.

Last year, the Florida Center for Fiscal Policy and Economic Policy released a report calling upon legislators to evaluate whether or not the many tax breaks and grants afforded to companies by the state of Florida are actually creating jobs. The public policy group argued that the state “provides huge benefits to selected companies each year, many of which receive little or no examination of their value to Florida’s economy.” At least $4 billion in annual breaks have been given to businesses in the state of Florida in the past couple of years, the group reported.

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