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Florida gets an ‘A’ for government spending transparency

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Florida is at the top of the class having earned an “A” in government spending transparency by the Florida Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG. The Sunshine State is one of 14 to earn the ranking of “leading state” by the group.

Florida makes this list based on having user-friendly websites that provide users with accessible information on how money is being spent. Those websites offer easy-to-use search features for the common Joe to “follow the money” as well as downloadable files that allow people and groups looking to dig a little deeper the chance to evaluate entire sets of transactions.

“This year, most states have made their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst with Florida Public Interest Research Group. “Florida continues to be one of the leaders of the pack.”

The group also lauds Florida for its creation of a new feature that posts the value of payments excluded from public records due to confidentiality laws. That lets users know just what is missing from the larger picture.

This is the sixth report of its kind conducted by Florida PIRG. Florida received an A last year as well, but falls just short of the agency’s top rating of A+. Only Ohio achieved that.

“It’s good that Florida provides easier access to data about contracting than most states,” said Susan McGrath, executive director of Florida Consumer Action Network. “The ‘Sunshine State’ should commit to becoming equally transparent about business subsidies and other off-budget activities. Florida residents deserve nothing less.”

According to PIRG many states that have created or improved their online transparency this year have done so with little upfront cost.

“In fact, top-flight transparency websites can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts,” the group wrote in a release. “Florida officials reported that their transparency portal cost was launched using the existing budget of the Department of Financial Services and costs $489,563, including staff time and benefits, consulting and IT maintenance annually.”

“I made a promise to Floridians that our office would operate with more accountability and more transparency than any other CFO ever had, and I’m proud that we’ve accomplished that goal,” Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater told Florida PIRG. “In 2012, I advocated for changes in the law that allowed us to create the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System (FACTS) so everyone would have access to contracting information, have the ability to scrutinize purchases, and learn exactly how their tax dollars are being spent. Since then, our website has been recognized as one of the very best in the nation and we continue to look for additional opportunities to share even more information with the public.”

Despite rampant political polarization, this is one area where partisanship seems not to be an issue. According to the study, neither Republican nor Democratic states had across-the-board higher levels of spending disclosure.

“Open and accessible state budgets are important so that the public can see where its tax dollars are being spent, and hold their state government accountable for its decisions,” said Sunlight Foundation National Policy Manager Emily Shaw. “It’s encouraging to see more states prioritizing open data policies and taking the steps necessary to make their data truly accessible.”

In all, only two states lack a function that allows users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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