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California, home of so much brilliance and innovation, should be ashamed that Texas and Kentucky lead the nation in using the tools of technology to make their government spending more transparent to their citizens. Even worse is that 35 other states scored higher than California in a recent analysis by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Perhaps most humiliating of all is that the technology that could have put California in the top tier in 2012 is not expected to be up and running until ... 2017.
California rated a D minus in this survey.
"When Californians can summon a satellite image of the Capitol building from a cell phone in a matter of seconds, it is reasonable to expect that they should also be able to see what's happening inside the building just as easily," Pedro Morillas, CalPIRG's legislative director, wrote in the new report, "Following the Money 2012: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data." "It is disappointing and embarrassing that California is not only lagging behind, but actively moving in the opposite direction when it comes to keeping pace with certain standards."
The pace of this state's trudge to the 21st century in government transparency could become a liability for Gov. Jerry Brown as he tries to persuade voters that he has squeezed as many efficiencies as he could out of state government in asking voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase and higher income tax rates in November.
In many states, such a claim would be more readily verifiable. The top-rated states, such as Texas and Kentucky, allow journalists, watchdog groups and curious citizens to comb through spending records - comparing historical data, viewing all contracts, tracking grants and economic development projects - through a centralized, searchable, downloadable site.
California's central site to track government spending - albeit cumbersome to navigate and incomplete in its data - was shuttered by Brown in November 2011 on the rationale that users should go directly to the primary sources of information.
"At the end of the day, the problem is that in order to get all the budget information, you have to go to dozens of (department and agency) websites if you wanted to get the whole picture," Morillas said.
At least that is the challenge until 2017, when the one-stop-shopping website is supposed to open up. But the website for the project ( www.fiscalca.gov) does not exactly inspire confidence. It is less than user friendly - and its timeline for the project stops in April 2012 with the awarding of the contract. I had to make a phone call to its public-information officer to find out the date when the project is expected to be completed - and to ask why it was not included in the timeline.
The reason for the omission? "A glitch in the software" that the technicians could not figure out. And I had to ask why it will take until 2017 for California to achieve the online budget transparency that Texas, Kentucky and many other states are offering today. The short answer: Oh, it's all so complicated, and there are so many departments and agencies involved, and they would need to change their billing and accounting practices to synchronize everything.
It's not just the budget software that is hopelessly out of date and difficult to navigate. The ability to search and collate campaign-finance data on the secretary of state's 1990s-era website (ss.ca.gov) is as clunky and convoluted as it was when Democrat Debra Bowen took office in 2005 with a pledge to modernize it. She hasn't.
It's as if the politicians in power are going out of their way to make it difficult for the citizenry to track their campaign contributions or how they are spending our money.
By the way, put aside your partisan-tinted glasses on this issue. Of the top-scoring states in the national survey, four of their governors were Republicans, three were Democrats. Of the lowest-scoring states, two had Democratic governors and three had Republicans.
Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat whose efforts on behalf of government transparency have earned him adversaries in university and government bureaucracies, has introduced SB1002 to require that public documents and data that are electronically available be user friendly and searchable by widely available software.
"For me, open government and transparency have got to be a hallmark of any democracy," Yee said last week. "What's the point of electing people if you can't find out what they're doing and how they're spending the money they've been given?"
It seems unconscionable in these times, when generations of technology development are measured in months, that Californians have to wait until 2017 to catch up with Kentucky's online access to its government.
"It will be antiquated by the time it's up and running," said CalPIRG's Morillas. He hesitated, then added, "In 2017, California will have a better score."
This is a disgrace, especially for a state establishment that is about to ask its electorate to pour more money into an opaque government.
What other states are doing:
Visitors can track expenditure data over the years.
Copies of all contracts for goods and services are readily available.
The state's "checkbook" is easily searchable and downloadable.
(Overall grade: A minus)
Users are able to monitor state spending in nearly real time because data are updated nightly.
(Overall grade: B minus)
Its central website includes county government expenditures.
(Overall grade: B)
Want to track specific payments? You can search by amount, vendor, paying agency or description of good or service.
John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle's editorial page editor. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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