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CALPIRG Education Fund
Central Valley Business Times
Central Valley Business Times

California receives an F when it comes to government spending transparency, according to a study by the California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

“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 recipients of public subsidies accountable,” says Garo Manjikian, policy advocate with the California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. "But California has a long way to go."

Officials from 45 states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. California was one of only five states that didn’t respond to the researchers with any feedback.

The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin, the report says.

Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2014” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” Described in the report as a "Failing state," California fails to follow many of the standards of online spending transparency.

This is the second consecutive year that California’s transparency website has earned an “F” grade. Grading standards rise each year, so states need to improve transparency each year to maintain high scores.

While many states continue to improve, the states that most distinguished themselves as leaders in spending transparency are those that provide access to otherwise unscrutinized areas of expenditure, says the report.

Six states provide public access to checkbook-level data on the subsidy recipients for each of the state’s most important economic development programs, allowing citizens and public officials to hold subsidy recipients accountable by listing the public benefits that specific companies were expected to provide and showing the benefits they actually delivered.

The most transparent states similarly provide detailed information on subsidies spent through the tax code, on economic development subsidies, and “off-budget” quasi-public agencies, the report says.

California, on the other hand, still lacks a central transparency website that provides spending data in a searchable format. The one place where some state spending is available, Department of General Services, there is no expenditure data available on any of California’s major subsidy programs, says the report.

The department takes exception to the criticism.

"We believe California deserves more credit for the breadth of contract data that it currently maintains on its e-Procurement ( website," the department says in an email to CVBT. "This site provides information on the award of contracts for goods, services, and information technology; as well as important details about each contract, including the contracting department, the contractor, dates, quantity, price, and how the contract was awarded."

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

While California has fallen far behind at the state level, California cities are taking the lead in making government spending transparent and easily accessible to the public, the group says.

In a 2013 CALPIRG report, “Transparency in City Spending,” which graded the country’s largest 50 cities on spending transparency, San Francisco received an “A-" one of the top ranked cities in the country. In October 2013 Los Angeles unveiled their new transparency portal, “Control Panel LA,” which includes checkbook level data that is easily searchable and downloadable.

At least eight states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the new report.

States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. For example, Oklahoma (B-) did it for only $8,000 and Texas (A-) did it for $310,000.

Top-flight transparency websites can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts, the report says. For example, Massachusetts reported that by posting information on opportunities through the state’s checkbook-level procurement website, Comm-Pass, bids for transportation projects funded by Recovery Act funds came in 15-20 percent below the state’s initial estimates.

State spending transparency is a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of which party rules the state legislative, or sits in the Governor’s office, or how public opinion tilts in the states. Neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.

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