Good Jobs First, a "national policy resource center for grassroots groups and public officials, promoting corporate and government accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families" has compiled a report entitled The State of State Disclosure which evaluates "online public information about economic development subsidies, procurement contracts and lobbying activities."
Scores from around the South were somewhat disappointing, except North Carolina which placed 9th with a grade of 'C'. Kentucky was ranked as the next best Southern state in 23rd place with a grade of 'D-'. Every other Southern state received a failing grade of 'F'. No state received an 'A' grading.
But is this necessarily a bad thing? In the low-tax, cash-strapped Southern states, which consistently rank at the top in poverty rates and the bottom in education and health care, there are probably better things to spend money on than fancy websites. Besides, it just gives the anti-tax activists and conservative right-wing bloggers something to do in their spare time, looking for wasteful spending on projects such as pre-K programs and winter home heating assistance for the elderly and poor.
On the other hand, government must be accountable to the people. The internet and technology in general have created new opportunities for transparency, not just for journalists and the media but for everyday citizens and taxpayers. Which is likely one reason politicians in most states don't want to fund it. And it shouldn't cost that much. Most if not all of this data is already in one electronic form or another.
As Good Jobs First says in the report's Executive Summary:
Transparency in key aspects of state government is improving, but there are still wide variations in the degree to which states are making full use of the Internet to disseminate information to the public. Only a few states have created high-quality disclosure systems, while many more seem to be resisting the great degree of openness that the Web makes possible.
More transparency on spending is a positive development, but there is also a need for greater disclosure about other key areas of interaction between government and the private sector -- for example, information about which companies are getting special tax breaks and direct financial assistance from state agencies and which companies are spending money to exert influence over state policymaking.
And even progressives for good government will agree with anti-tax activists that waste and fraud must be weeded out at all levels of government. For Exhibit A, just look to the work by our hosts here at the Institute for Southern Studies and their Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch project.
The Good Jobs First study focused on online disclosure of subsidies, procurement contracts, and lobbying. State disclosure websites in each of these areas were evaluated according to criteria such as ease of finding the website, searchability, level of detail, thoroughness, and the depth and currency of the data.
The Executive Summary notes that fewer than half the states provide online information about economic development subsidies and that most states do better on procurement contract disclosure with lobbying information not far behind.
Around the South, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia all received a score of "zero" for disclosure of economic development subsidies. North Carolina did well with a score of 67%, as did Florida with a score of 61%. Kentucky earned a score of 45%.
The South scored better in the procurement contract disclosure category. All had scores of 80% or more except West Virginia with a respectable 71% and Kentucky at 57%.
In the lobbying disclosure category, results were mixed. Florida and Georgia scored well at 89%, as did Mississippi and Kentucky at 83% and Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia at 78%. States with room for improvement include Alabama (39%), Arkansas (56%), and West Virginia (39%).
The Executive Summary concludes:
...more than a decade after the Internet gained broad popular use, it is discouraging to find so many states still resisting online disclosure entirely when it comes to subsidies, and numerous others settling for obscure sites with incomplete data when it comes to procurement and lobbying. We commend the disclosure leaders and urge the laggards to emulate them.
For the full findings with state-by-state details and links to all state disclosure websites (where availalbe), visit the Good Jobs First State Disclosure Page.