Kansas among worst states for public spending transparency

MAKING THE GRADE: Kansas fell 11 spots from 35th last year to 46th this year among the 50 states in terms of spending transparency.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — The results are in, and the news isn’t good: Kansas continues to plummet in state spending transparency rankings, and it barely squeaked by with a grade of D-minus, according to a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Now normally we take PIRG’s findings with a grain of salt; while they state they’re non-partisan, they’re a noticeable shade of blue. But its recent report, “Following the Money 2014,” delves into the nitty-gritty transparency details folks on both sides of the aisle can appreciate.

The most eye-popping aspect of this year’s dataset is Kansas’ 11-spot drop in the rankings. Last year’s report pegged the Sunflower State at an overall grade of C-minus at 35th place, but this year Kansas fell to 46th and was one point shy of receiving a big, fat F.

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with PIRG, said Kansas hasn’t necessarily been getting worse — standards and expectations are just getting higher.

“A state has to really be improving even to maintain the same score,” Baxandall told Kansas Watchdog, citing advancements in technological capabilities for raising the bar. “The expectations the public has for information have heightened over time, and our scoring has similarly gotten tougher.”

“What Kansas now gets a D-minus for would have done much better years ago with the same transparency functions,” he added.

Among the biggest knocks on the state is an inability to search its online spending site, kanview.ks.gov, for expenditures by keyword.

“If you already know what vendor you’re looking for with a contract, or you know the bureaucratic agency giving that contract, you’ll be able to find it,” Baxandall stated. “But if you want to know what the state spends on tires, there’s no way to just search that.”

Kansas also lost points for poor transparency regarding economic-development-program spending and the inability for people to download the entire spending data set.

Dave Trabert, president of the fiscally conservative Kansas Police Institute, said the state’s transparency infrastructure is nowhere close to where it needs to be.

“There is so much money that’s allocated that legislators never really see, citizens never really see,” Trabert said. “Money that comes off the top that’s not included in a budget process, you don’t see where that money goes.”

In an ideal world, Trabert said, Kansas would alter its budgetary practices to allow for greater transparency and implement changes to show every transaction, no matter how small.

“Nothing that’s off budget, off books, nothing that’s tax expenditures, no such thing,” Trabert said. “Record revenues where they flow and record expenditures.”

One fascinating nugget of information uncovered by PIRG researchers was how transparency doesn’t adhere to political boundaries. PIRG’s report was unable to find any correlation between a state’s political leanings and its level of transparency.

Kansas at least wasn’t dead last, for whatever that’s worth. We beat out Idaho, Alaska and California.

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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