Improved but not laudable

It’s interesting what passes for “tremendous progress” these days, but that’s exactly how Arkansas Lt. Gov. Mark Darr characterized the state’s movement on a recent measure of state government spending transparency. The U.S. IRG Education Fund, a good government watchdog group, just published its annual survey on fiscal transparency. In it Arkansas earned a “C.” Last year we received an “F” on the same scale.

As was recently reported by Arkansas News Bureau, Arkansas grades were based on information gathered prior to launch of the state’s online checkbook last summer, a development that accounted for the higher grade in this year’s report, “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data.”

The report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F” based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites.

Arkansas launched its online checkbook in 2012 and for the first time provides checkbook-level expenditure information online.

To be sure, the state government has made progress; and we should be glad in that fact. However, moving from abject failure to average is hardly an accomplishment worthy of much crowing.

While improved, the U.S. IRG Education Fund’s report notes, several areas where we need significant effort were pointed out. Arkansas was characterized as an “emerging state,” but still not a leader. The report highlights the fact that the Arkansas website fails to include checkbook-level information on economic development tax credits and spending by off-budget agencies, as well as the projected and achieved benefits of economic development subsidies.

While he’s doing what politicians typically do — claim victory at any meager success, Darr does deserve credit for implementing the online checkbook program.

As above, Darr was pleased with the rating, “This report shows tremendous progress, and that is something as a state we should be proud of. Our transparency website will and has continued to improve.”

Proud? Yes. Satisfied? Not quite.

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, was asked about Arkansas’ position in the ratings: “State governments across the country have become more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and businesses that receive public funds accountable, but Arkansas still has a long way to go.”

The Arkansas News Bureau also noted an important trend in state government transparency — all 50 states now provide at least some checkbook-level detail about individual government expenditures online. Just three years ago, only 32 states provided state spending information online.

As regular readers know, “greater transparency” is an oft-repeated mantra in our commentary. As Americans we know what can happen when governments are free to conduct closed-door business. The greater the shroud of secrecy the more emboldened special interests and other corrupting forces find purchase in the processes of government.

We know that democracy isn’t an easy proposition. It requires mindful, consistent tending. Nowhere is that more important than matters of fiscal transparency. We’ve all heard the old trope “follow the money.” That’s exactly what we need to do. This report tells us we still have work to do.