Commentary

04/02/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

California gets dismal grade from U.S. PIRG in government transparency


California has failed to institute a one-stop transparency shop of searchable and downloadable info (Photo Credit: borman818)

Ouch! California received a big, fat 'F' from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund for a lack of transparency in government spending. According to the annual “Following the Money” report, having dropped from 43rd to 49th place, California is only slightly more open about how it spends money than North Dakota. 

As states publish more data and improve accessibility, transparency standards have risen. In 2013 states are expected to have a comprehensive, user-friendly, one-stop transparency shop that is both searchable and downloadable. Unable to keep pace, California’s grade slipped from a ‘D-‘ in 2012 to an ‘F’ this year.

Opening up the books on public spending has caught on like wildfire. This year, for the first time ever, all 50 states provide access to “checkbook-level” spending data online. Just four years ago, only 32 states had transparency websites. Moreover, all but two states, California and Vermont, now also provide spending information in a searchable format. 

“State governments across the country have become more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Emily Rusch, State Director of CALPIRG Education Fund. “Unfortunately, while other states are innovating and improving, California is failing. With a budget as big as California’s, we should be leading the rest of the country. Instead, California is behind almost every other state in shining a light on where our tax dollars go.”

California’s problems extend well beyond searchability. In addition to being difficult to navigate, the state’s transparency website lacks essential data needed by the public to monitor spending and hold officials accountable. 

The Golden State received a failing grade for not providing online information on non-contract spending, companies that benefit from economic development tax credits and what the intended and actual public benefit of those subsidies is. California was also dinged for lacking accessible financial information on city, county, and “off-budget” or quasi-public agencies, such as the University of California and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Rusch. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”

Even if the state had prepared all information detailed in the report, where would it be published? In 2011 Jerry Brown had the state’s central transparency website shut down due to budget concerns. Brown justified the closure by arguing that all the information could be found elsewhere, scattered on other government websites.  

As a result, California was evaluated based on the information found on the Department of General Services’ website, data which isn’t exactly comprehensive or easy to find. When compared to robust on-stop shop websites in other states, it’s no wonder California ranked so low. 

"A central, thorough website for state transparency should be a priority, because it would shine a light on California’s government spending. Californians need to be able to feel confident about tracking their tax dollars, and state officials can benefit from sharing information,” said Rusch. “Given our history of state budget problems, Californians need to be able to follow the money.”

Although California’s transparency website shut down due to cost concerns, the report finds that it doesn’t cost much to create and maintain a transparency website. The average price tag for creating a website, according to the report, clocks in at around $300,000 and the annual cost of upkeep is much less. 

As tax day rapidly approaches, many Californians will find themselves writing checks out to Sacramento. Citizens deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent as well as be able to use spending data to hold officials accountable to results. To increase accountability and help restore the public’s trust in government, the state’s checkbook should be transparent, accessible, and subject to public scrutiny. 

Categories: Government, Transparency

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