LITTLE ROCK — A nonprofit group that grades states on their online transparency has given Arkansas a grade of C and ranked it 32nd out of 38 states analyzed.
In a report released Wednesday, Alexandria, Va.-based Sunshine Review gave Arkansas an overall grade of C. Broken down by category, it gave the state government a B, counties a D-minus, cities a C and school districts a C.
"Arkansas transparency scores are disappointing and in desperate need of improvement," Sunshine Review President Michael Barnhart said in a news release. "Anything less than an A-plus is a disservice to Arkansas taxpayers. Sunshine Review urges Arkansas’ elected officials to put the necessary resources into their online transparency and improve their rankings across the board."
The report was released about three months after the debut of the state’s online checkbook, a searchable website documenting state expenditures. Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who led the push for the website, noted that earlier this year, before the online checkbook launched, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Arkansas an F for online transparency.
"I definitely think moving from an F to a B is a huge feat, and I think we can move even higher by making a few other changes," Darr said.
Sunshine Review said it did not give the state government an A because of two issues: Its website does not provide a form or contact information for submitting a request under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act — though it does provide the text of the act — and it does not provide information on taxpayer-funded lobbying.
A form and contact information for an FOI request would be "an excellent thing" to consider adding to the site, said Melanie Hazeslip, accounting manager for the state Department of Finance and Administration, which administers the site.
Darr said one of the good things about the online checkbook is that "you can add things that were left off."
Asked to explain what taxpayer-funded lobbying is, Kristin McMurray, managing editor for Sunshine Review, said it is lobbying done by nonprofit groups that receive state funding. No state analyzed in the report currently provides such information online.
"New Jersey and California have both started to look at making this information public. It’s largely untracked at this point," McMurray said.
Darr said that "I guess we could talk about" documenting taxpayer-funded lobbying.
The site currently contains a link to the secretary of state’s website, which lists lobbyists who have registered with the state but not money they have received from the state.
The other grades in the report were based on analyses of the state’s five largest cities, five largest counties and 10 largest school districts. Sunshine Review found that 48 of the state’s 75 counties do not have an official website.
"I’m sure it’s not because the counties have anything to hide," said Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties. "It’s just having the money to have the mechanisms to put things online."
David Schoen, legal counsel for the Arkansas Municipal League, said cities are "doing a good job with the resources we have available to us."
Though the state’s school districts received an average grade of C, one bright spot in the report was an A-plus for the Fayetteville district.
"They worked really hard to get up to an A-plus," McMurray said.
She said Arkansas’ grades for cities and counties were below average, but a C for school districts was "unfortunately" common nationwide.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education did not immediately return a call Wednesday seeking comment.