Could the path to fiscal prudence come through transparency?

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

(Photo Credit: Daniel Cortes)

After a decade of deficits and budget bombs, Thursday saw Governor Jerry Brown sign the $96.3 billion spending plan into law. Despite deserved good press for getting the bill signed on time, the transparency parade was unable to avoid rain via the governor’s blue pencil.

Brown slashed a measure that would have increased transparency of the Judicial Council, the body that sets policy for the state’s court system. The cut was made, according to finance director Ana Matosantos, because it would have increased costs too much in a time of fiscal restraint.

This comes in the wake of controversy last week on the transparency front, when part of the budget bill involved stripping the requirements set on local governments to comply with public information requests and instead making it a “best practice” in order to save money. Sharon Byrne, writing for the Santa Barbara Sentinel, astutely spelled out today what this would have meant if it was included in the final bill:

“Had it passed, you would never have known that the Bell city administrator had given himself a 47 percents raise to $442,000, or that their police chief was in line to get a $510,000 annual pension, making him the second highest pensioner in California. The city of Bell could have just refused to release those records to any prying members of the public or news media.”

Transparency advocates across the state – including California Forward – urged the legislature to reexamine what the bill would mean for transparency as a whole, which culminated in the bill being tossed out of the budget.   

With open government and transparency movements gaining popular support from both California’s public and its Legislature, the state is faced with a difficult decisions: become more transparent but at great cost to a state whose books were just put in order, or reject transparency in favor of keeping California’s finances strong. However, what has become apparent because of these fiscal concerns is the need for more transparency, not less.  

What is important to note is that this isn’t a matter of being for or against transparency – Brown has stated his devotion to it numerous times – instead, this is two competing approaches attempting to do the same thing, which is eliminate wasteful spending.

The bill that was struck from the budget would have given local governments more control over dealing with costly public records requests in a bid to save money, proving the Legislature’s commitment to fiscal prudence. Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield called the Governor’s action  a “huge mistake,” because the provision was intended to identify  wasteful spending.

The Legislature has difficult waters to navigate – fiscal responsibility, transparency requirements on others and transparency expectations of themselves – but transparency can be a tool toward fiscal responsibility. For example, while it may have cost money to comply with the public records request that exposed the Bell city scandal, countless dollars were saved in the long run as indiscriminate pay raises would have continued unfettered indefinitely.

“There’s clearly an appetite for greater transparency, not just from the public, but from lawmakers and the Governor,” said Jim Mayer, president  and CEO of California Forward.  “Moreover, fiscal prudence and transparency are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, technology is radically changing the cost of open government.  State and local              policymakers should seize the opportunity to use technology-powered transparency to identify ways to improve services, reduce costs and restore trust.”


Matthew Grant Anson

All stories by: Matthew Grant Anson