Transparency

Ohio’s budget may be balanced, but officials aren’t doing a very good job of allowing the public to see its online checkbook.
The state is ranked fifth worst in the country when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2014,” the fifth annual report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
The states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Indiana, Oregon, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts.
Ohio is at the other end of the list, only better in terms of transparency than Kansas, Idaho, Alaska and California.
Ohio was ranked 10th worst in 2013.
Ohio is one of only three states whose checkbooks cannot effectively be searched.
The most transparent states have created user-friendly websites that provide visitors with information on an array of expenditures. Citizens can find information on specific vendor payments through easy-to-use search features, and experts and watchdog groups can also download and analyze the data.
Last year was the first time all 50 states operated websites. Thirty-eight states provide checkbook-level detail on subsidies for economic development, something lacking in this state due to mostly private setup of JobsOhio.
States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little cost. The report found states can often realize significant financial returns on their investment. Savings can come through more efficient government administration, more competitive bidding for public projects, and less staff time spent on information requests, among others. The report says the best transparency websites help citizens ensure that government contractors and vendors deliver the goods or services at a reasonable price.
Ohio’s transparency website (www.Ohio.gov/government/transparency) was downgraded due to limited search capabilities and an inability to download data to sort and massage the numbers behind state spending.
One example of where information is available, but of little use, is the Department of Administrative Services’ state employee salary data. It is available only as an 864-page PDF, and not a database that can be downloaded and crunched to yield useful information.
The report should be a wakeup call, and prompt lawmakers to act on House Bill 175, which was introduced last year by state Rep. Mike Dovilla, R-Berea. The proposal would make all state expenditures available online and would be operated through the office of Treasurer Josh Mandel.
Mandel, for one, supports the idea.
“Every check the state writes, from $1.80 for a pack of pencils to $8 million for an ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) contract, and everything in between, will be there,” Mandel said recently about the proposed bill. “I want to create an army of citizen auditors who can hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable for government spending.”
Better transparency is a campaign issue for David Pepper, a Democrat who is running for state attorney general and who was in Findlay this week.
He said he would demand more transparency and accountability when public money is used for traditional public services such as charter schools, for-profit prisons, and other private and nonprofit entities that receive tax dollars.
Regarding tax incentives, Pepper believes more transparency should occur when economic incentives are given to private companies and nonprofit organizations, including publicizing criteria used in determining incentives.
Making the state’s checkbook more readily available and usable would help restore accountability and trust in government. Being transparent is one of the best ways for officials to show taxpayers they are being responsible with public funds.
Taxpayers should not have to go scratching for financial records of the state agencies they fund. Ohio must improve on its dismal transparency grade. Passing House Bill 175 will help.

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