Open The Books on the California State Checkbook

Open The Books on the California State Checkbook
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It's national Sunshine Week across America. During this week, good-government groups advocate for open government and transparency in public spending. One massive area that remains hidden is the California state checkbook.

The state of California spends nearly a quarter trillion dollars annually, but taxpayers aren’t allowed to see where that money goes. That why, over the course of the past two years, our organization at OpenTheBooks.com has been asking California’s chief financial officer, the Controller of California, for “any” and “all” line-by-line state vendor payments. This information should be available through California’s open records law, but the last two controllers, John Chiang and currently Betty Yee, told us: stop asking because the records aren’t accessible. 

Really? In the electronic age – and in a state that is home to Silicon Valley – these excuses are not only laughable and lame, but a violation of the law.  

Any controller that can make payments has the ability to track payments. The Controller is not only in charge of paying the bills, but also all state accounting, bookkeeping, payroll, and auditing of all state operations – including financial and compliance audits and attestations.  The controller is dutifully charged with tracking “every dollar spent by the state.”

The Controllers of California – John Chiang and Betty Yee – aren’t arguing against the law.  Instead, they’re ignoring the law and a transparency revolution that is sweeping this country at all levels of government.  The Controllers don’t cite a single provision of the California Open Records Act or a legal exemption to justify their behavior, and they aren’t fulfilling their fiduciary duty under the law to ‘assist us’ in gathering the public records.

For years, taxpayers have heard the stale line that ‘government doesn’t have the capability’ or ‘it’s too expensive’ to produce data.  But we’re not pioneering new ground with our request; it’s settled law across America.

Our organization not only posts all United State government disclosed spending since 2001 in our publically accessible data commons at OpenTheBooks.com, but also the checkbooks in 48 of the 50 states.  We also post spending data in 36,000 local units of government across America.

Until recently, the residents of Los Angeles heard roughly the same excuses from their city officials as the Controller told us. Then, the data company Socrata helped the City of Los Angeles open the books on city spending data.  With a previous projected timeline of up to two years, transparency of city spending was accomplished in just under two months. 

Not producing this state level spending information in California raises a troubling question: What are the Controllers trying to hide?  Here’s the simple answer: waste, politically connected contracts, errors, duplication and countless other problems.

When we opened the books (after successful litigation) in Illinois, we found millions of dollars in state payments to lobbyists, political bloggers, and politically connected vendors. We discovered this while the Comptroller claimed there was ‘no money’ to pay the service providers of the developmentally disabled.

At the federal level, then U.S. Senators Tom Coburn and Barack Obama opened the federal checkbook with the “Google Your Government Act” in 2006. In December, we used this data and found that the U.S. federal government is the second largest public relations firm in the world.  Federal agencies employ 3,100 public affairs officers and spent $4.3 billion spent on public relations (PR) since 2007. 

Taxpayer groups should not have to have a search warrant to see how their money is being spent. While California residents and taxpayers can view 4.63 million federal, state, and local salary and pension records, the California checkbook remains hidden.  If you visit OpenTheBooks.com, you’ll find that the top 14,647 “highly compensated” public employees cost taxpayers nearly $5 billion per year in payroll, benefits and pension.

The public policy implications for California taxpayers are obvious. Serious budget reformers on both sides often argue that everything has to be on the table. It’s obvious that state spending deserves its place at the table as well. After all, you can’t reform what you can’t see. The only way to stop corruption – legal or illegal – is to expose the payments.

It’s long past time to end California’s transparency drought.  It’s time for the California Controller to “Open the Books.”

Adam Andrzejewski is the founder & CEO of OpenTheBooks.com – the largest private repository of public spending in the world.

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