08/03/2011 by Nate Levine

Removing the blindfold: Why California needs transparency

A recent dispute between Assembly members John Perez and Anthony Portantino highlights a problem that sits at the foundation of California's broken government: a disturbing lack of transparency and accountability.

Portantino, a Democrat, has accused his political leadership of slashing his annual budget after he voted against party lines on a recent measure. Perez has countered this claim, pointing out that Portantino's spending surpassed his allotted budget by nearly $70,000. Portantino believes this number is incorrect. Is it? Who knows. The Assembly Rules Committee won't release the data.

Accusations swirl round and round, and nothing is resolved, all because the parties involved have nothing concrete to cling to. You can't run a government on conjecture. Yet California's lawmakers and voters are asked to make billion dollar decisions every year with very limited information.

This past April, our team at California Common Sense (CACS), a Stanford based non-profit working to promote government transparency, filed a public records request asking for the state's checkbook. Our request was denied on the basis that collecting detailed expenditure data would be so time consuming that it was not in the public's interest to do so.

While we at CACS fundamentally disagree with this line of reasoning, the very fact that no infrastructure for transparency exists is grossly irresponsible. Open data is a crucial step towards solving our budget crisis. How else will we find out that Congress spends millions of dollars a year to print bills, that lifeguards in California are paid well above the national average, or that our schools pay millions every year to rent empty buildings? When you add up thousands of similar examples of waste, it is clear we can be saving billions of dollars every year.

People want discourse with their governments. Transparency is a goal that breaches party lines and that everyone can stand behind. This isn't about attacking individual employees or making personal data accessible to the public. It's about empowering citizens to challenge wasteful spending when they see it.

Corporate shareholders receive quarterly spending reports. It is time that we, as the shareholders of California, demand to see where our money is being spent.

Nate Levine is vice-president and spokesperson for California Common Sense, a Stanford-based nonprofit committed to making government more transparent, effective and efficient.

Categories: Selected Blog Posts, Budget Reform, State Budget, Accountability, Transparency

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