Colorado government lags peers in financial transparency

Colorado has fallen behind most other states in its efforts to make the state’s finances transparent to residents, according to a report released this week by The Colorado Public Interest Research Group (COPIRG).

The report (.pdf) finds that Colorado–ranked 9th in the country two years ago–has fallen to 31st in the rankings as other states have continued to improve their websites, and today rates only a C-.

The group collaborated with officials from 47 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.

In the report, Colorado had a 69 rating (on a scale of 0-100), while Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Arizona received point totals of 90 and higher for their websites. Texas ranked first in the country with 98, and Idaho took up the rear with a score of 6.

Said COPIRG Director Danny Katz, “Citizens expect information to be at their fingertips the way they can view their cellphone minutes or the location of a package. Putting spending information online helps hold government accountable and allows taxpayers to see where the money goes.”

Among the things PIRG says the best websites have in common are:

  • 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 the 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.

Practically speaking, public information isn’t truly accessible unless it’s online. Government spending transparency websites that meet the standard of “Transparency 2.0” give citizens and government
officials the ability to monitor many aspects of state spending—saving
money, preventing corruption, and encouraging the achievement of a wide variety of public policy goals.

PIRG says states that operate the most transparent websites, which it says cost about $300,000 to launch and very little to maintain, save states money–up to millions of dollars a year–with the savings coming from less expense for paper and less time for staff to respond to requests for information.

According to the report, Colorado spent $200,000 to set up its system and spends $169,400 a year to operate the site. Some states have spent millions on their sites, while others have spent only a few thousand dollars.

Colorado’s transparency website is maintained by the office of The State Controller.

Ashley Lopez contributed to this article.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.