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Consumer group gives Montana an “F” for state government transparency

Montana has received a failing grade from a nonprofit group in its annual report on transparency in government spending.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group says in its report, released Wednesday, that the state has “a long way to go” to match the “checkbook-level” details about government spending published online by other states.

The report is the Boston-based group’s third in as many years and gives states grades on their progress toward “Transparency 2.0,” the nonprofit’s self-defined standard, which is based heavily on states having one-stop websites that gather budget and other public information.

According to the report, 46 states provide online databases of government spending, up from 32 two years ago. Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana and Massachusetts were graded highest in the report.

Montana joined Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa and Wyoming at the bottom of the scorecard. These states, the report says, may provide sites that list government spending but that the information given is “limited and superficial.”

Sheryl Olson, deputy director of the Montana Department of Administration, said the state offers approximately 230 e-government services, allowing citizens to do things like register a vehicle or apply for a fishing license online.

Those services drew 6.4 million visitors last year, a number that indicates Montana is satisfying the public’s desire for online services, she said.

“People are going there, using the information we provide them,” Olson said. “I think we’re doing an extraordinary job in providing Montana citizens the e-government services they want.”

Olson also noted that the Sunshine Review, another nonprofit focused on government transparency, has given Montana a “B” grade, noting that the state’s website is easy to search; contact information is easy to find; and audits, budgets, contracts and tax information is posted.

Olson said the state makes as much budget information available online as possible but that it doesn’t go down to the checkbook level that U.S. PIRG wanted to see.

That’s because of software choices made in the 1990s, which make it necessary for staff members today to manually generate budget reports, scrubbing them of sensitive information like Social Security numbers by hand, Olson said.

The Montana Legislature has tried to create a one-stop-shop website for government transparency. Most recently, HB 444, sponsored by Bozeman Rep. Tom Burnett, sought to create such a site during the 2011 Legislature.

The Republican’s bill was vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer because it was too expensive; the Legislature had not allocated money to build the site, Olson said.

“They supported it in concept,” she said. “But the Legislature didn’t want to pay to have it done.”

Burnett on Wednesday said the U.S. PIRG grade shows that the state can do a lot better.

“This is the kind of information that citizens and taxpayers are owed,” he said, predicting that similar bills would come in the next session. “The people expect this of government, so it’ll pass eventually.”

Ryan Pierannunzi, tax and budget associate with U.S. PIRG said information scattered across numerous locations wasn’t good enough.

“The data is scattered, and if it’s out there, it would take a very long time for the average citizen to use,” he said. “The best practice is to incorporate it into one portal.”

Sites that have launched transparency sites have seen reductions in wasteful spending thanks to the extra oversight. Trust in government has generally increased in those states, and the sites tend to discourage corruption, he said.

“In some cases, we don’t hear about the best reasons for transparency in states that have these systems because the transparency is preventing them,” Pierannunzi said.

Olson admitted that the state’s site doesn’t make it easy to use to find fiscal information.

“It’s not front-and-center,” she said. “It’s a little bumpy to find, and if you give me a minute, I can walk you through to there.”

So far, Olson said, no legislators are requesting a transparency bill for the 2013 session, but she expects something will show up in her office soon after the election.

“I’m just confident there’ll be another one coming forward, and we’ll work earnestly with them,” she said.