What a difference a year — and a lot of work in the intervening 12 months — makes.
After receiving a failing grade from U.S. Public Interest Research Group for financial transparency, the Vermont Department of Finance and Management has doubled down on the release of a new website, SPOTLIGHT, that gives Vermonters comprehensive access to the state’s fiscal information. The site is broken down by information about the budget, revenue, expenditures, contracts and grants, and financial and audit reports.
Previously, Vermont was one of a few states that did not have a fiscal transparency website with “checkbook-level” information for financial information for taxpayers. Last year, the state got a D- from U.S. PIRG.
The A-rated states, according to the report, include Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Oklahoma.
The authors of the fourth annual “Following the Money” report gave the state a C+ this year for the new Finance and Management website. Vermont was named an “emerging” transparency state and is listed as one of 20 with the most transparent online spending information.
Paul Burns, the executive director of VPIRG, the Vermont chapter of USPIRG, said the state’s new website makes financial information much more available to the public.
“It’s one of the most improved grades in this report,” Burns said. “That’s because the administration took seriously the objections or complaints or concerns raised in last year’s report.”
Jim Reardon, commissioner of the Department of Finance and Management, said he is proud of the team that pulled the website together this year. Deputy Commissioner Sue Zeller was in charge of the project; she worked with web and data experts in the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Department of Information and Innovation to create SPOTLIGHT.
“We made significant progress on several fronts, and there is more to be done,” Reardon said. His department will look at the 2013 U.S. PIRG report and see whether the new recommendations are “practical, reasonable and doable.”
Reardon said this latest announcement is part of his team’s concerted effort to keep the state’s financial reporting up to snuff. He said the state has received an unqualified opinion for its financial statements and has a AAA bond rating from two rating agencies. Standard and Poors recently moved Vermont up from AA stable to AA+ with a positive outlook, he said.
All 50 states now provide checkbook level financial information, according to the report. Vermont and California are the only two states in the nation that do not offer searchable data.
Vermont could further improve its score by providing searchable databases for financial information, including contracts and grants, according to the report.
Burns said SPOTLIGHT is “not terribly user friendly.”
“It’s not searchable in the way we would like it to be,” Burns said. “You ought to be able to put in a corporation’s name to figure out what contracts they have received and it’s not as easily searchable.”
In addition, the state website does not provide information about expected outcomes, including job creation targets, that measures the success of economic development programs.
“We know where the money’s going now, and who it’s going to, but it should be easier to track that in a searchable way and also have more information about what are the benchmarks of success we should be able to use to evaluate this,” Burns said.
He pointed to the Vermont Transparency website, a joint venture between Public Assets Institute and the Ethan Allen Institute, and its searchable database for general contracts, as an example of the kind of service the state could build.
Correction: The state’s rating with Standard and Poor’s is AA+; we originally reported the rating as A+.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:33 a.m. on March 27.