Utah gets B+ in government spending transparency, group says

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 2:13 p.m. MDT

Utah State Capitol, Jan. 25, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Apparently making public how much state government spends on bottled water left it a lot less thirsty.

Once Utah's transparency website revealed the state was spending $294,000 on bottled water each year, the annual expense dropped to about $85,000.

Residents' ability to track government spending online helps reduce waste, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. In its "Follow the Money 2012" report, Utah received a B+ for government spending transparency. That's up from a C last year, putting Utah among the 10 states showing the most progress.

Also, Utah went from a black hole to a shining light the past year in public access to government records.

Utahns have a right to know where every tax dollar goes and how it's spent, and the state has a responsibility to be accountable and open, said Gov. Gary Herbert. While pleased with the grade, he challenged state agencies to strive for a higher mark next year.

Two state websites — transparent.utah.gov and performance.utah.gov — document how tax dollars are spent and how agencies are being held accountable. Utah spent $192,800 to start the sites and spends about $100,000 a year to maintain them.

U.S. PIRG lists Utah among "advancing" states in terms of online access to government spending data. Utah scored higher this year because it consolidated spending information from various state agencies and worked with local governments to post their revenues and expenditures to the state site.

The Utah Transparency Advisory Board was focused on getting financial data from all levels of government on the state's website, said John Reidhead, state finance division director.

The state also started posting tax expenditures such as sales tax exemptions for economic development, costs that according to the report often escape oversight because they don't appear as budget line items.

The report also noted that the State Office of Education and the Utah Tax Commission save about $15,000 a year from reduced public information requests due to the transparency website.

State lawmakers this year approved a bill to create a government records ombudsman to act as a gatekeeper for requests under Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act. The ombudsman would work out of the Division of Archives and Records Service as a resource for people making or responding to records requests and  mediate disputes between requestors and responders.

The Utah Media Coalition awarded Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, its "Shining Light" award for his work on the bill. In addition to creating the ombudsman job, it made minor changes to GRAMA.

Last year, lawmakers passed and Herbert signed legislation that severely restricted access to many government records, earning them the Society of Professional Journalists' national "Black Hole Award."

After overwhelming public outcry, lawmakers reversed course and repealed the bill. They also set up a working group to study GRAMA. As a member of the group, Bramble reached out to various interests to craft legislation that honor's the public insistence on transparency, according to the Utah Media Coalition.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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