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October 24, 2012

The Fact Checker: Did State Treasurer Beth Pearce Get a D Minus in Transparency?

Factchecker-bullEach week in Fact Checker, reporters and editors from Seven Days and will evaluate the veracity of statements and rate them on a five-point scale: True, Mostly True, Debatable, Mostly False and Udder Bull. This week's Fact Checker was written by VTDigger's Anne Galloway.

CLAIM: "If [the state treasurer’s website] was so wonderful, why do we have a D minus in transparency from the U.S. PIRG? That is unacceptable in this information age." 
— Republican candidate for state treasurer Wendy Wilton, WCAX-TV debate, October 7

FACTS: Transparency has been Wilton’s favorite cudgel in the state treasurer’s race. The Rutland city treasurer accuses Democratic State Treasurer Beth Pearce of failing to present the state’s budget in a “checkbook” format that Vermonters can understand. She points to a March study from U.S. PIRG, a national consumer advocacy organization, that gave the state a failing grade for financial transparency as proof that Pearce hasn’t provided the public with the kind of easy-to-grasp graphics and explanations that would make the state’s finances more transparent to average Vermonters. 

Trouble is, Wilton has put the dunce cap on the wrong student. U.S. PIRG gave a D minus not to the state treasurer’s office, but to the Department of Finance and Management. The poor marks are not for information about the state’s pension system (the purview of the treasurer), but for the state’s not-so-user-friendly annual budget explanations (produced by the DFM).

“I’ll take the lumps when I deserve them,” said Jim Reardon, the commissioner of the Department of Finance and Management. “This is the jurisdiction of finance and management, and not the state treasurer.”

The U.S. PIRG report said Vermont has a difficult-to-use budget website and was one of only three states that failed to complete a questionnaire. The state’s website is also short on important categories of information, such as government contracts with private companies, subsidies for economic development programs, tax breaks and the transactions of quasi-public agencies. State websites rated highly by U.S. PIRG — including those maintained by Texas, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia — provided that information.

The Department of Finance and Management website is not for the mathematically challenged, nor is the state treasurer’s office site. Reardon and Pearce say they’re working on making both more understandable for regular folk.

Wilton has been touting the Rutland city website as a shining example. But instead of offering pie charts and searchable databases, her site is comprised of links to 14 documents — audits, profit-and-loss statements, and other reports. Not a single graphic graces the page titled “Financial Reports.” So much for the checkbook concept. 

SCORE: Wilton has blamed the wrong person for Vermont’s failing grade from U.S. PIRG. The transparency rankings focused on state budget information handled by the executive branch — not disclosure of pension data maintained by the independently elected state treasurer. For that reason, we rate the claim “Udder Bull.”

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