08/17/2011 by Evan Storms
Stanford-based group highlights lack of transparency in CA legislature
A recent conflict in the California Assembly exposed the lack of transparency at the highest levels of the state government. Assembly Member Anthony Portantino has accused Speaker John Perez of cutting his office’s budget because Portantino voted against party lines on a recent measure; Perez maintains that the cut was made because Portantino’s office was spending in excess of its allotted budget by roughly $70,000. And that “roughly” will remain quite rough—because the Assembly rules committee has refused to release the relevant data.
We at California Common Sense (CACS)—a Stanford-based nonprofit dedicated to increasing government transparency—are disappointed by this lack of transparency, all the more so because the limited numbers that are available indicate enormous discrepancies in how Assembly members’ spending is reported.
CACS researchers have made an interactive visualization that highlights these discrepancies. We had to match legislative staff pay data from 2010 against office budget reports from 2009 because the Assembly, in keeping with recent decisions, has not released more recent budget data. But unless those budgets have more than tripled, a significant portion of spending is still going unreported.
The visualization allows us to delve deeper into which budgets are most underreported by focusing on a particular Assembly member. Here’s a display of what Assembly member Felipe Fuentes’s office spends:
According to the Assembly budget, Fuentes’s office spent $144,256 on staff salaries in 2009. According to the data on individual employees’ salaries, that number is actually over eight times higher. In fact, Fuentes’ chief consultant makes $169,000 alone—$25,000 more than reported spending on all staff salaries (see the top green bar in the left hand corner).
These types of discrepancies underscore how little consistent, trustworthy information is available to the California public. When even those running the government are left in the dark, what hope is there for the average citizen to make informed decisions about his state? It’s time for sunshine in government finances. And that starts with demanding that the Assembly Rules Committee release the information on what members’ offices are spending.
Evan Storms is research director for CACS