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Good government is transparent government. Unless the people know what's going on with the numbers, “their” government isn't properly serving them.
Shamefully, the California state government just received a “D-minus” grade on transparency from the California Public Interest Research Group, a liberal-oriented policy outfit. “At a time when anyone with a smart phone can summon a satellite image of the Capitol building in seconds, we should be able to see what's happening inside the building just as easily,” said the Pedro Morillas, the group's legislative director.
He specifically criticized Gov. Jerry Brown for taking down the state's “Reporting Transparency in Government” website, which centralized data collection and cost a pittance, $21,000 a year, to maintain.
According to the Sacramento Bee, the Brown administration responded that the website was outdated, and that links still are provided to the data from the numerous government bureaus. It also took pride in garnering an “A-minus” grade from the Sunshine Review rating group for the ca.gov website.
Our experience is that CALPIRG is right. This was confirmed by Steven B. Frates, president of the Center for Government Analysis at Pepperdine University. In consulting him for 20 years, it's clear he knows more than nearly anyone about California government finance. For example, he dug out crucial information no one else could find during the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy.
“The information is not good,” he told us of the state government's online performance. “There's a tendency for it to be slowly posted. Ultimately, all the data end up on the web one way or another. But they always have a tendency to obfuscate, especially for expenditures for salaries and benefits.”
He said three reforms are needed:
All expenditure data should be put online promptly, ideally, within 90 days. “Currently, it takes as long as 18 months for schools.”;
There should be a clear posting of expenditures on salaries and benefits, and on the number of employees;
There also should be a clear posting of the status of debt obligations and pension funds.
Nationally, many governments are making just such reforms, Judy Nadler told us; she's senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in Santa Clara.
“They're going online and having their materials seen easily by the public. That's important.” She also suggested that public libraries make it easier for citizens to “sit down and spend time reading the government budgets,” with assistance, if needed, from librarians.
“It's the responsibility of the Legislature to communicate with the people who elected them, not just the figures, but the meaning of the figures” she said.
As a start, Gov. Brown should revive, and revamp, the Reporting Transparency in Government site.
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