A common lament among politicians and the citizenry in West Virginia - especially in an election season - is that the Mountain State all too often winds up toward the bottom of many rankings among the states, whether it be education, health measures, income or any variety of other metrics.
But in one recent assessment - online government spending transparency - West Virginia is on the other end of the spectrum, a showing that reflects considerable progress in that realm in just a few years.
The assessment was conducted by U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Frontier Group - the eighth one performed over the years. Its report, "Following the Money 2018: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data," places West Virginia as well as Ohio at the top of its ratings with scores of 98 points each out of a possible 100. They were the only two states to get A+ ratings. Kentucky scored 85 points and received a B grade.
In rating states' government spending websites, PIRG evaluated searchability, breadth of information, comprehensiveness, usability and a "real world" test looking for information related to six specific questions about state spending.
It wasn't that long ago that West Virginia was toward the other end of the "Following the Money" rankings. In the 2011 report, the Mountain State was among 10 states that received a failing grade. PIRG noted then that the state lacked a central website that provided "checkbook-level" details on spending and that finding other aspects of public tax and spending information was difficult.
At about that same time, however, then-State Auditor Glenn Gainer launched website upgrades that were reflected in better scores in subsequent reports. The state earned a C in 2015 and a B in 2016. Gainer's successor as state auditor, John B. McCuskey, has continued the improvements. The most recent PIRG report noted West Virginia's "meteoric rise," commenting that since 2016, "West Virginia has launched a robust, user-friendly site with comprehensive information about the state's subsidy programs." The report said the state has made its checkbook-level spending information fully downloadable, added a dedicated page to listing the state's quasi-public agencies, and has started posting or linking to more data pertaining to its economic development subsidies. The state's website is at www.transparencywv.org.
Of course, these rankings are not about bragging rights for public officials. They are intended to encourage openness in government, specifically regarding how taxpayers' money is spent. A transparent spending website, such as what West Virginia's has apparently become, allows residents to be informed fully about the state's financial transactions. Such openness checks corruption, bolsters public confidence and encourages fiscal responsibility. It also puts state officials and agencies on notice that they are being monitored - a good step toward more accountability.
Let's hope state officials keep up the good work toward more openness.