Politics blog

PIRG report gives Washington a B grade for spending transparency

OlympianApril 9, 2014 

The state Legislative Building.

STEVE BLOOM / FILE PHOTO — The Olympian

The Washington Public Interest Research Group’s latest rating of 50 states on their disclosure of government spending gives Washington a slightly higher B grade this year, up from B-minus. Improvements in transportation spending disclosures at the state’s fiscal.wa.gov web site are among improvements in the past year by the state to provide data online in a public-friendly way.

Despite improvements, Washington remains in the second tier of states – No. 18 overall – for disclosures, according to the report issued this week by the Washington affiliate of the U.S. PIRG. 

See it here

The eight top tier states include Oregon, ranked No. 2 for overall online disclosures of state spending; Oregon’s score was slightly behind disclosure pioneer Indiana and just ahead of Florida. The worst states were Idaho, Alaska and California. 

Chris Esh, a program associate with WashPIRG, said Washington falls down - earning an F grade - in the area of listing detailed impacts of public tax subsidies or exemptions. He said the state’s fiscal web site does not show how many jobs were created or other performance data showing whether a tax break provided what was promised.

For instance, lawmakers authorized more than $3 billion in tax breaks for aerospace in 2003 and another $8.7 billion last year – both aimed at keeping certain operations of Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Washington. 

“What we find is we are unable to check the projected benefits with the actual benefits,’’ Esh said.  “There’s not a centralized place where you can compare the projected benefits and job creation versus what actually happened.” 

Some states do have that kind of data, according to PIRG. 

Washington's fiscal-disclosure web site was created by staff at the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program, which tracks and collects data about state budgets and spending. Tom Jensen, LEAP administrator, did not dispute the B grade given to the state but he suggested WashPIRG’s ratings give an incomplete picture of what Washington is doing.

“I think the grade is fair based on the criteria they are looking at,” Jensen said. But he added, “They don’t even mention budgets. That is a big part of what we do.”

Jensen noted that LEAP’s site lets a taxpayer or policy maker go online and see detailed information about budgets in real time when – for example – a governor or budget committee holds a press conference to announce a proposal. Jensen said the state’s site goes even further, providing details on spending that is planned as well as actual expenditures. Similarly it has staffing levels for state agencies going back a decade.

“Neither of those two pieces are part of the criteria for U.S. PIRG. To me those are very, very important,’’ Jensen said.  If budget disclosures were counted, “I think we would come out really well.’’

Jensen did acknowledge there are limits to tax break disclosures, but he said they do make available what the Department of Revenue has. 

In some cases data is proprietary and not disclosed by Revenue. Lawmakers led by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, have been pushing for legislation that could force recipients of tax breaks to make even more information about their finances available to the public.

Jensen said his agency's site has made a few big improvements in response to legislative requests this year – including the interactive map of transportation and capital-construction projects.

The map – click here to see it – lets taxpayers choose to search by legislative district or county and then click on a jurisdiction to see all projects that are in process for that area. Each listed project has further links that explain the project.

Another innovation that went online in January in response to legislators’ requests, the budget site has compiled an inventory of fees and built a search tool to plow through the data. See it here

A person can search, for instance, by a key word such as nursing or vehicle to learn of all fees pertaining to that topic. Clicking on a link for each listed fee lets one see the fee history going back to 2008.

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