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W.Va.'s spending transparency grade falls

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's grade for online transparency of state government spending has slipped from an A- to a C, according to the latest rankings released by a national watchdog group.

West Virginia's national ranking dropped from sixth last year to 21st this year. The state's overall score dropped from 91 points to 74.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group's report concluded that other states are taking swifter steps to improve online fiscal transparency.

"West Virginia's falling score does not mean spending has become less transparent," said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy for PIRG's education fund. "It means other states are improving faster."

Last year, West Virginia officials lauded PIRG's annual report that gave the state an A-, a significant improvement from an F grade in 2011.

In the fall of 2011, the state started a "TransparencyWV" website, www.transparencywv.org, to track spending. Texas' state government had a similarly designed website.

Tuesday's "Following the Money" report said West Virginia's transparency website has "checkbook-level information on contracts, grants and other expenses." But the site lacks details on economic development tax credits and subsidies, according to the report.

" ... West Virginia still has plenty of room for improvement," Baxandall said.

West Virginia officials said they plan to improve the state's transparency website once the state completes its $98 million "Enterprise Resource Planning" project, which will link state agencies' financial data.

"It will greatly enhance and expand the possible applications for researching state funds," said Justin Southern, a spokesman for Auditor Glen Gainer. "TransparencyWV will be completely remade to take advantage of the new system."

Southern said the website now is updated daily and "provides an open book into the state's finances."

The PIRG report said "top-flight" transparency websites can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and "pay-to-play" contracts.

"The state of West Virginia still has better than average transparency and can get back on top by further improving the breadth and ease of access of online government spending information," Baxandall said. "Given the state's difficult budget choices, West Virginians need to be able to follow the money."

The states with the highest-graded websites were Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Oklahoma.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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