ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER. MARCH 28, 2013. Another day, another critical report about transparency in the Golden State.
Earlier this month, we told you about two new reports that blasted state government for failing to make its budget and legislative data easy to use. This week, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund released an even more critical report on the availability of spending data in California.
In its report "Following the Money 2013: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data," U.S. PIRG, the umbrella organization that oversees state public interest research groups like CALPIRG, gave California a failing grade along with Wyoming, Wisconsin, Hawaii and North Dakota.
The authors found that while California and the others maintain websites with "checkbook-level" spending data, their sites are far more "limited and hard to use" than other states'.
"Not a single Failing State provides information on the public benefits of economic development subsidies broken down by recipient or makes its tax expenditure report available," the report says. "Only one state – Wyoming – provides spending information on off-budget agencies."
Compare this with the seven states receiving "A" grades (Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Oklahoma).
U.S. PIRG says they "have created user-friendly websites that provide visitors with an array of checkbook-level information about expenditures. In each of these states, users can monitor the payments made to vendors through contracts, grants, tax credits and other discretionary spending. All spending in these states – with the exception of subsidies in Texas – is accessible in a searchable database. All Leading States – except Florida – also provide users with copies of contracts, allowing residents to uncover details about the goods or services the government pays companies to provide."
Illinois has even created a special website called Open Book that allows the public "to explore contracts awarded to corporations side-by-side with electoral contributions those corporations have made."
While other states are innovating and improving," saidEmily Rusch, state director of CALPIRG, in a conference call with reporters, "California is failing."
Indeed, the U.S. PIRG report finds that California is uniquely deficient.
"In 2013, for the first time, all 50 states provide some checkbook-level information on state spending via the Internet," the report states. "In 48 states – all except California and Vermont – this information is now searchable."
The report also notes that the size of a state's budget does not determine its transparency.
"Vermont, with the fourth-smallest budget in the country, scored a 77 (out of 100); meanwhile, California, with a budget 43 times larger than Vermont's, scored a 37," the report says.
The criticism by public watchdog groups echoes some of the Orange County Register's own findings.
When we looked at secrecy in California government in 2011, we found that the state's Government Code contains at least 500 provisions that exempt specific records from public disclosure, while an additional 16 provisions prohibit the release of broad categories of documents. Among the categories exempt from public disclosure: complaints filed with a state licensing body or investigatory agency, individual state employee's pension benefits and the names of convicts placed on non-revocable parole. In a 2009 report, we looked at the series of laws that exempt the disclosure of police disciplinary records.
Rusch said most states have created special, one-stop-shop transparency sites where residents can view spending data from a number of state departments. California created a website like this under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at transparency.ca.gov, but after he left office, Gov. Jerry Brown shut it down in late 2011. As a result, for the U.S. PIRG report, other states' transparency websites were compared with the site for the California Department of General Services, which manages procurement.
CALPIRG, as part of its rollout of the new report, is calling for California to relaunch its transparency website.
If you visit transparency.ca.gov today, you'll see a note that reads, in part, "Governor Brown is committed to keeping state government open and transparent while eliminating inefficiencies and unnecessary costs. The information previously available on this website is available through other sources." The message offers links to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's top political watchdog; the State Controller's Office, which collects information on employee salaries; the Department of General Services' eProcurement website, which provides information on contracts; and the Bureau of State Audits.
The governor's staff has indicated in the past that the transparency site wasn't used very much