In 2013, former Maine Gov. Paul LePage established the Maine Open Checkbook website to give Mainers a more transparent view of the State of Maine’s finances and government spending. The website was the first of its kind to be run by the state and provided Maine taxpayers with publicly accessible and up-to-date expenditure and employee compensation data.
While establishing Maine Open Checkbook was an important first step to take, there’s more Maine can do to make its government open and transparent to state taxpayers. This week, lawmakers on Maine’s Committee on State and Local Government held a public hearing on LD 749, a bill that would require the state to publish more detailed information about how it spends its revenues.
LD 749 would increase transparency by requiring Maine Open Checkbook to include the names of all recipients of state grants and track and record all payments made by quasi-public entities of the State, as well as the dollar value of credits awarded through all state economic development programs. Publishing this information would allow Mainers to quantify the costs of corporate welfare and determine who receives grant money from state agencies while trying to influence the legislative process.
Maine is merely average when it comes to transparency in government. In 2016, Maine Open Checkbook received a C+ grade in transparency from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group when evaluated on the site’s comprehensiveness, whether all information could be accessed on one page, and how well information could be searched and downloaded. The group ranked Maine Open Checkbook 41st in transparency when compared to the open government websites operated by other state governments.
In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity released “state integrity investigations” of the 50 states to provide a “comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency,” scoring state oversight in all branches of government, elections, pension fund management and other areas. The group gave Maine an “F” grade in public access to information and ranked Maine 43rd among the 50 states.
Comparisons of Maine Open Checkbook to other states’ transparency websites makes it clear that Maine Open Checkbook needs to be be revamped to include more information that would make state government fully transparent and in sync with other states’ level of accountability.
State grant recipients, payments made by quasi-public entities, and the dollar value for all credits awarded through state economic development programs are technically accessible to the public already, but putting this information on Maine Open Checkbook would give concerned citizens and researchers easier access to it. And after all, the citizens of Maine are the ones funding state government and should therefore have as much information (as reasonably possible) about how government spends their money.
Maine Open Checkbook was supposed to be incrementally built up over time to include graphs, comparative reports, and revenue information. However, this has not become a reality and the website has fallen short of what it was supposed to become. LD 749 would improve Maine Open Checkbook to ensure this transformation occurs.
Establishing a platform like Maine Open Checkbook is a great way to get valuable information into the hands of the public, but now that the website exists, we should ensure it provides the most complete and transparent accounting of when and how our tax dollars are being spent.