Taking year-end inventory of government transparency in California

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Hallway in Capitol Building in Sacramento. (Photo Credit: Antti T. Nissinen/Flickr)

As 2012 winds to a close, a reflective mood inevitably sets in. Our introspection leads us to look back at successes and forward to areas still needing improvement in California.

On the short list of victories for the people are congressional districts drawn by a non-partisan commission and vetted by voters, the advent of Online Voter Registration (OVR), and longer term limits for elected officials in Sacramento.

No doubt, these important milestones meant to modify legislative behavior in favor actions that benefits constituents instead of special interests or partisan agendas are notable achievements.

But, as a recent editorial published in the Daily Breeze suggests, there are more fish to fry this coming year in the areas of transparency and accountability.

The authors rightly point to several areas where improvement must be made:

  • expanding disclosure of campaign contributors, reining in ballot-box budgeting
  • ending gut-and-amend legislating
  • erasing the ability for lawmakers to change their votes on a piece of legislation in the record books after the fact.

“Campaign finance disclosure information needs to be put under voters’ noses. It should be more than find-able, it should be obvious,” said Kim Alexander, president and founder of The California Voter Foundation.

The good news on that particular front is that multiple bills are already making their way through Sacramento as a result from the outcry over the $11 million that was funneled from Arizona into two California ballot campaigns this past cycle.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D- Sacramento, is sponsoring AB 45, which would require full disclosure of donations to a non-profit of $50,000 or more within six months of a California election. It would also require that campaign filings be made available to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). A second, more nascent bill sponsored by State Sens. Mark Leno and Jerry Hill would require greater disclosure of funding sources in political advertising.

It is all swift action indicating that California voters will not allow their elections to be bought, especially by those not even living in the state.

Controlling so-called ballot box budgeting by requiring new programs instituted via citizen initiatives to have a built-in funding source is common sense, as is putting an end, once and for all, to the “gut-and-amend” process that allows a bill to travel through committee approval in one form, only to see wholesale changes in the final hours of a legislative session before being pushed through behind closed doors.

Perhaps the most obvious of all four suggestions found in the editorial is locking in a legislator’s vote once it is placed. Allowing them to be their own revisionist historians with voting records grants such phenomenal manipulative power that we are shocked it has taken this long. No one should be able to vote one way to satisfy partisan demands and then switch their record to satisfy constituents immediately before beginning a campaign for re-election.

As is always the case, however, not everyone is in favor of transparency in all aspects. Rob Ortiz of the Sacramento Bee laments the privacy concerns for state workers now that Controller Chiang’s new public payroll site makes their salary information not just available, but easily searchable through a revamped website (both features are hallmarks of true transparency).

We believe, however, that transparency is not a goal you can selectively pursue. His editorial, though well-intentioned, is akin to Hollywood actors making millions off of having their face on the big screen while complaining about paparazzi. Having your salary information available those cutting the checks is Accounting 101 for any organization, especially one funded by taxpayers.

As we discovered in our own Deliberative Poll, Californians believe that they are capable of making decisions for themselves provided they have the information to do so. If we don’t do everything to ensure that that information is available, the ideal of maintaining a democracy of the people and by the people won’t survive.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson