New Report: California Receives an “F” in Annual Report on Transparency of Government Spending

CALPIRG Education Fund

Sacramento, CA – California received an “F” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fourth annual report of its kind by the CALPIRG 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 businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Emily Rusch, State Director of CALPIRG Education Fund. “Unfortunately, while other states are innovating and improving, California is failing. With a budget as big as California’s, we should be leading the rest of the country. Instead, California is behind almost every other state in shining a light on where our tax dollars go.” 

Officials from California and 47 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oklahoma.

Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites, “Following the Money 2013” assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” 

The report describes California as a “failing state” because, even though it contains some checkbook-level data for contracts and grants, it lacks other important information to allow residents to monitor state spending, including checkbook-level data on non-contract spending and information about which companies benefit from economic development tax credits. California is also one of two states in the country without searchable vendor-specific spending information. California’s transparency site does not link to tax expenditure reports or information on the intended and actual benefits of economic development subsidies. California also fails to provide information on “off-budget” agencies as leading transparency states have begun to do.

As a result of rising transparency grading standards, California’s “D-” grade from last year dropped to an “F” this year. In order for states to keep up with rising transparency standards, they must continually improve transparency.

Since last year’s “Following the Money” report, there has been remarkable progress across the country with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to this data.  

One of the most striking findings in this year’s report is that all 50 states now provide at least some checkbook-level detail about individual government expenditures. In 48 states—all except California and Vermont—this information is now searchable. Just three years ago, only 32 states provided checkbook-level information on state spending online, and only 29 states provided that information in searchable form. Thirty-nine state transparency websites now include tax expenditure reports, providing information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits—up from just eight states three years ago.

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

The states with the most transparent spending stand out partly because they are comprehensive about the kinds of spending they include, such as data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. At least six states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report. The best state transparency tools are highly searchable, engage citizens, and include detailed information—allowing all the information to be put to good use.

California’s old transparency website, was shut down by Gov. Brown in late 2011. This year California’s grade was based on information provided at the Department of General Services’ website.  

California’s scattered, incomplete spending information does not come close to matching the comprehensive transparency websites of states like Texas, Illinois, and Florida

States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost, even in other large states. Texas officials report spending $310,000 to create their website and Illinois officials report spending $100,000 to create the Illinois site. In fact, top-flight transparency websites can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts. 

“A central, thorough website for state transparency should be a priority, because it would shine a light on California’s government spending. Californians need to be able to feel confident about tracking their tax dollars, and state officials can benefit from sharing information,” said Rusch. “Given our history of state budget problems, Californians need to be able to follow the money.” 

To access the state’s transparency website, click here:

To read the report, click here.


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