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Transparency websites hit by budget ax

Government transparency websites likely will be scaled back or even eliminated as a result of a 75 percent budget cut that congressional leaders and the White House agreed to last week.

The proposed $35 million Electronic Government Fund was slashed to $8 million in the deal struck late last Friday to avert a government shutdown. The e-government fund supports websites such as USASpending.gov and the IT Dashboard, which provide public access to vast amounts of information on how the government spends money.

Another transparency site, Data.gov, also is endangered, transparency advocates said. Data.gov offers access to 380,000 government agency data sets as diverse as climate change statistics and export licensing records.

The sites are part of the Obama administration's effort to create unprecedented openness in the federal government. But the funding cuts might eliminate some or all of the sites, said Daniel Schuman of the nonprofit transparency advocacy group called the Sunlight Foundation.

"We're trying to find out how much money each site needs to survive," he said. "My best guess is that this is not enough money."

Which sites survive may be decided by U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra. "The electronic government fund is a bucket of money spent on federal transparency programs at Kundra's discretion," Schuman said. "He will have to make the tough decisions about where to cut."

"We will certainly see some kind of scaling back," agreed Sam Rosen-Amy, a federal budget policy analyst at OMBWatch, a monitoring nonprofit.

Even if the funding cuts don't mean transparency websites disappear, they seem certain to eliminate any possibility of improving them, which "is bad news for the transparency movement," he said.

"At a time when everyone is wondering how the government is spending money, Congress just cut funding for tools that tell you," Rosen-Amy said. "It's sort of like cutting [Internal Revenue Service] enforcement" to save money.

The deep reductions are a bit surprising because the transparency websites seemed to have enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, he said.

Little is known yet about why lawmakers cut so deeply into the transparency budget because "much of the budget negotiation process was almost entirely done in secret," the Sunlight Foundation said in a statement on Tuesday.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement, "When this agreement is signed into law, Congress will have taken the unprecedented step of passing the largest nondefense spending cut in the history of our nation -- tens of billions larger than any other nondefense reduction, and the biggest overall reduction since World War II."

Transparency wasn't the only technology target for budget-cutters. Other cuts include:

-- $24 million from the Agriculture Department's chief information officer's budget;

--$2 million from Agriculture distance learning, telemedicine and broadband program loans and grants;

--$45 million from the Technology Innovation Program at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology;

--$120 million from Justice Department information sharing technology;

--$444 million from National Science Foundation research;

--$14 million from the National Archives and Records Administration electronic record collection;

-- $6 million from Customs and Border Patrol information technology modernization;

--$11 million from Immigration and Customs Enforcement IT modernization;

--$178 million from Homeland Security Department science and technology;

--$160 million from Veterans Affairs information technology.

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