Keeping an eye on government spending became a lot easier last week with the debut of the Maine Open Checkbook website. Found at opencheckbook.maine.gov, the site provides access to state expenditures by fiscal year dating back to July 1, 2008, and searchable down to individual transactions.
“Open Checkbook gives Mainers information about how their hard-earned taxpayer dollars are used by government by taking budget data out of government file cabinets and making it available to the public for the first time in an easy-to-access way,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a Feb. 6 press release.
It is promising that the state recognizes that this public information should be available at the click of a mouse, as it is already in other states. This should merely be a starting point, however, as technology makes it easier and cheaper to disseminate public data to the masses.
The site is also a call to third parties, such as media organizations and watchdog groups, that have the ability and inclination to wade through the material and make sense of it for the general public. The state says “expanded analytics with graphs and comparative reports” are due in the future for the site, but until then, the data should make it easier to analyze state spending and present it to the public in a clear and responsible manner.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer interest organization that last year gave Maine government a “D minus” on transparency issues, praised the new website.
“We’re glad Maine is joining the ranks of states that disclose information about government spending,” Phineas Baxandall, senior tax and budget analyst for U.S. P.I.R.G.’s Education Fund, said in a statement. “The new website is an impressive first step to open up the state’s checkbook. Mainers now have an important new tool to hold their government accountable.”
According to a review by the group, the site “provides searchable data on over $7 billion in spending that is easily sortable by 103 state agencies and offices, 43 spending categories, 33 purchasing funds, and more than 58,000 vendors.
“This brings an unprecedented level of transparency to Maine residents,” the group said.
However, the group said, the site does have some shortcomings. It does not spell out who is receiving around $660 million in state grants, nor does it detail spending through tax credits. Also, spending by quasi-public agencies like the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Housing Authority – both identified by LePage as wasteful with government money – is not yet on the site. State officials say that information has not yet been prepared properly for the site, but will be added once it is. The Maine State Controllers Office, the creator of the website, also says “revenue data and other details related to expenses” will be added next year.
But the site itself is a good first step. Now, let’s see what we can do with it.
Ben Bragdon, managing editor