Readers of this column may do a double take to see CALPIRG and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association advocating an identical position. But when it comes to government transparency we are surely reading off the same sheet of music.
There is little debate that confidence in California government is at a historic low. But even though a budget resolution has been reached a big challenge for Sacramento in the months ahead will be to restore the trust that has been squandered.
Amid the dark fiscal news one ray of hope coming from the budget fiasco was the governor’s executive order to put government contracts online and make them searchable by the public. Budget transparency while not a new idea can be revolutionary. Public oversight of the state’s purse is a cornerstone of democratic government and provides an added incentive for those in government to spend tax dollars as efficiently as possible. Transparency is an important part of any real budget reform.
The governor’s website is up and running and is a significant step out of the transparency Stone Age for California. The site http://www.reportingtransparency.ca.gov/Contracts is searchable by department or supplier and includes a few advanced search options for the most inquisitive among us. The format is easy to navigate and the search results are easy enough to understand. The governor should be applauded for these important steps.
But there is more to be done. The transparency portal lacks some simple information that would be incredibly useful. From government contracts to tax breaks for special interests the governor’s site could use some bulking up. For starters taxpayers should have access to all data relating to compensation of public employees and members of government boards as well as the extent to which some corporate interests receive tax breaks and the potential revenue loss associated with them.
Another simple improvement to make this tool far more searchable and useful would be to describe spending items and tax breaks in non-bureaucratic terms that people understand. Unlike many other states for example in California there is no way to find out how much the government spends on traffic lights or classroom desks. Current budgetary information is virtually impossible to understand. Making the transparency portal searchable by keyword or type of spending as many other states do would make a world of difference.
California should be on the leading edge of the nation’s movement toward making budgets transparent. But despite California’s "high-tech" reputation nearly two dozen other states beat us to the punch. In the past few years at least 23 states already have mandated that citizens be able to access a searchable online database of government expenditures. These states have come to define what some call "Google Government" a new standard of comprehensive one-stop one-click budget accountability and accessibility. State governments are putting their checkbooks and IOUs online in a format that puts information in reach and in context the way that we’ve come to expect outside government.
Catching up to the other states and becoming a leader in open government budgeting will help us make better choices together about investments in our community. We all have a stake in the success of our schools transportation system public health and other public structures.
Experience from the leading Google Government states shows that these Web portals are effective low-cost tools that bolster citizen confidence reduce contracting costs and improve public oversight. The popularity of these sites can be seen for instance in the millions of visits by citizens to Missouri’s Accountability Portal website and in the increased number of businesses bidding for government contracts on Houston’s transparency website.
These reforms also save money. The comptroller of Texas reports a savings of $2.3 million from more competitive bidding. Estimates suggest that transparency websites save millions more by reducing the number of information requests from citizens and watchdog groups and by increasing the number of bids for public projects. The biggest savings may be from avoided scandals that we will never need to hear about.
The disconnect in recent polls between taxpayers’ support for public services and structures and Californians’ unwillingness to pay for them points to a need for greater budget transparency. If the governor can finish what he started California’s Google Government will be a vital tool to bring some sunlight to the gray days ahead.
Pedro Morillas is the legislative advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group a nonprofit consumer group that stands up to powerful interests on behalf of Californians’ health and well-being. Jon Coupal is the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association California’s largest grass roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.