Montanans often brag about having one of the most progressive state constitutions in the country. The document, penned nearly 40 years ago, mandates strict government transparency. But a Washington D.C.-based policy group last week gave Montana a "D" when it comes to providing information online about taxpayer-funded subsidies.
"You can't have full accountability unless you know exactly where the money is going," says Philip Mattera, research director for Good Jobs First, a nonprofit, non-partisan research center that rated the reporting practices of four economic development subsidy programs in Montana and compared them to others across the country.
According to the Good Jobs First report, Montana ranks 22nd nationally in online disclosure. The report knocks the state down the grade scale specifically because energy producers doing business in Montana reap significant tax breaks—$139.6 million in 2008—yet the Montana Department of Revenue releases no information, online or elsewhere, regarding which companies receive assistance.
Montana Department of Revenue Division Administrator Gene Walborn points out that his agency is prohibited from disclosing even basic information about companies paying reduced tax rates because state law forbids it.
"We couldn't give you a list of names," Walborn says. "The Legislature has specifically made that confidential."
Therefore, increasing transparency would require legislative action. That could be a tough sell as proponents of confidentiality assert that disclosure would, by exposing proprietary information, leave tax break recipients vulnerable to competitors.
"I could see why a business might want some protection," Walborn says.
Good Jobs First says other states, specifically Michigan and Missouri, lean heavily on the side of transparency and there's been negligible fallout. Furthermore, Mattera argues that entities dipping into public coffers should, at a minimum, be obligated to disclose their name, enabling taxpayers to follow how their money is being used.
"There's a certain amount of privacy that you need to give up if you're going to be using taxpayer money," he says.