After receiving a failing grade last year for government transparency about how tax dollars were spent, Wisconsin has taken steps to put itself among the nation’s leaders in terms of financial transparency.
According to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, which released spending transparency rankings in a report Tuesday, Wisconsin was one of only eight states to earn an A-minus grade in the annual report.
Wisconsin’s rapid turnaround can be attributed almost entirely to launching OpenBook Wisconsin in January, WISPIRG Director Bruce Speight said.
Gov. Scott Walker’s administration developed the website, which gives the public total access to the state’s spending records.
“OpenBook now shows all state expenditures. It has checkbook-level details, so it gives anybody the ability to search by department, expenditure or purchasing agency,” Speight said.
According to the WISPIRG report, Wisconsin is the eighth state in the nation to have a financial records website that is open to the public.
The site’s information is arranged by several key categories and is user-friendly, Common Cause in Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck said.
The website cost $160,000, according to the Department of Administration, a figure that Speight said would eventually pay for itself through increased efficiency.
“There are cases where by creating this website, states have in the long run been able to save money by identifying waste and unnecessary expenses. Those savings outweigh the cost of creating the site,” he said.
Wisconsin is now tied with Iowa and Vermont in terms of transparency, with Indiana, Massachusetts, Texas, Florida and Oregon receiving higher rankings, according to the report.
As technology improves, Speight said the standards for financial transparency become more stringent, which explains why the only states receiving As had transparency sites.
The grades states were given were assessed on 12 categories of varying value, Speight said. A large part of the score was based on a state’s “checkbook-level,” or how well spending could be tracked on their website with the ideal result resembling a checkbook, he said.
Wisconsin’s downfall, however, was the site’s exclusion of quasi-public agencies from the records, agencies that operate on some combination of public and private revenue, Speight said. These agencies add up to a lot of revenue left off the website, he said.
“One thing Wisconsin was docked for in the report was that it does not including quasi-public agencies in OpenBook,” Speight said. “The best example here would be that Open Book doesn’t include the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Agency.”
Speight said some quasi-public agencies were included, and others will continue to be added.
Regardless of its flaws, Heck said the OpenBook site shows the state is committed to increasing transparency.
“There are a number of states that use this system, and the fact that Wisconsin was among the first to adopt it is commendable,” Heck said.
Before Openbook’s creation, Heck said it was difficult to track down the financial information that can now be accessed through the website.