Remember the nearly $4 billion in federal stimulus funds that are coming to Oregon? Want to know what's happening with that money? Then I have some encouraging news for you. The state has just made welcome changes to its Web site (www.oregon.gov/recovery) that let you know how stimulus dollars are being spent. The Web site's transparency has improved, making it easier for you to find information.
Back in July, the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) released a report critiquing the state's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) transparency Web site; the report recommended several changes that would dramatically improve the usefulness of the information. Among the recommendations were the following:
- Summarize key information about ARRA spending at the top of the home page, with clear links to pages providing details of programs. We suggested that a clear bar graph, pie chart or table showing the main spending flows would go a long way in helping the user begin to see what the Recovery Act is all about.
- Provide a map or a table showing how overall ARRA spending is being distributed around the state, highlighting the amounts in key categories.
- Along with information on spending streams, provide information on individual projects being funded by those programs, such as a particular transit improvement or weatherization effort. Where possible, display the location of the projects on maps — preferably interactive displays with links to further details.
I am pleased to report that the governor's office has been receptive to the input we and others have provided, and the updated Web site was launched on Oct. 12 with these changes implemented. We would like to see additional improvements, for example fewer PDF documents and more raw, exportable data, but the state needs to be commended for coming so far in a few months.
This sets the stage for something even more relevant to Oregonians — a similar site to provide transparency of our state budget. While the stimulus dollars amount to $3.9 billion over three years, the Oregon state budget is pushing $15 billion per biennium. This is not only more money than the stimulus funds, but citizens have more say and stake in how these dollars are spent. We also need to know how much revenue we are not collecting due to tax breaks for corporations, and if those tax breaks are creating the jobs they promised in return.
The passage of HB 2500 in the Oregon legislature this year will create a state budget transparency Web site to fill this need. The question at hand is whether or not it will be robust, comprehensive and easy to navigate and understand. The state has now demonstrated, on its ARRA transparency site, that it has the capacity to do good, solid work on meeting these criteria.
We should apply the best practices and lessons learned from that site to the future Transparency Oregon Web site that will be launched on Jan. 1. We don't expect that the first iteration of the site will meet all the criteria we believe are important, but we also know we can work with the state to improve it over time so as to provide the public with the information we need to hold our elected officials accountable.
Jon Bartholomew is a policy advocate for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), based in Portland.