Despite a self-congratulatory blog by New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the state’s COVID-19 Relief Program Tracker fails Good Jobs First’s transparency test.
In the blog, DiNapoli wrote that it was the responsibility of policymakers to engage with the public to show how the state’s money was being used. He called New York’s tracker “user-friendly,” boasting that it could be used to “see how the state is performing in its duties to assist New Yorkers during the pandemic.”
If only that were true. New York is, in fact, one of the few states that provides virtually no details on its COVID spending. It’s so bad that we are calling out New York as an example of poor transparency in our forthcoming white paper evaluating how well, or poorly, states disclose their CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) spending.
As the fourth most-populous state, New York got a little over $5 billion in CRF funding plus almost $13 billion more from the American Rescue Plan’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF). But the state’s website reveals little about the uses of those $18 billion. The tracker DiNapoli cited shows CRF and SLFRF as rudimentary dropdown sections, but they just give users a brief description of the program and a non-revelatory bar graph that only visualizes the program’s allocation and how much of it has been spent so far. It never itemizes expenditures or purchases, so residents can’t really see how these funds are being used.
New York could be doing better – much better. We know that because we saw it over the course of our research. States with exemplary COVID spending trackers and webpages disclose far more than just how much money they’ve gotten and how much they’ve spent in the aggregate (aggregates are meaningless in general; much more so when the totals are big). As we’ve previously noted, states with good transparency divulge how much money was allocated to localities, special districts, individual companies, state programs, and the expenditures categories their fiscal activities fall into. States with the strongest level of transparency tell users exactly what they spent their money on, right down to individual purchases: e.g., “115 tests administered to staff @ $51.31 each.”
To be sure, New York isn’t the only poor performer on disclosing its use of federal pandemic funds, as our upcoming report will reveal. But we also highlight three states with some of the best disclosure methods, as a best practice for other states. There are better ways, as several states are proving.
DiNapoli concludes his post by saying he hopes New York’s tracker is “a model other states can use as an example of needed government transparency.” We wouldn’t wish New York’s model on any other state’s residents. Hopefully, after reading our report, DiNapoli will adopt our recommendations. With so much pandemic money yet to be spent, there is plenty of time for this state — and dozens of others —to get disclosure right and enable residents to participate in their own recoveries.