Bill Seeks Improve California’s Woeful Budget Transparency

Jerry Brown Budget 2017Getting detailed information about the California budget has long been a headache. The state Department of Finance provides online access to decades of information, but the portal is clumsy and difficult to use. There are no easy ways to chart how spending has ebbed and flowed in specific areas or to quickly spot the biggest changes from year to year.

This is why in 2016, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) ranked California as the worst state in the nation when it came to providing “online access to government spending data.”

That wasn’t the first blast coming the Golden State’s way. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave California an F minus – a 25 on a scale of 1 to 100
– on the question of whether “the budget and budget-related information is accessible to the public in an open-data format.”

Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, wants that to change. He’s introduced what he calls the Budget Transparency Act of 2019. Assembly Bill 62 would promote state budget transparency by establishing an online website that would be “interactive, searchable, regularly updated, and include specified features, including information on each state expenditure.”

The Legislative Counsel’s Digest describing the bill notes that state law already requires anyone with internet access to be able to gather information on the budget. But Fong’s measure would broaden the budget categories to cover all but data “deemed confidential or otherwise exempt from disclosure under state or federal law.” Presently, state law limits access on some fiscal information, though not on basics like the general fund budget.

Best states used as template for Fong’s bill

The five states that U.S. PIRG rates highest for access to state financial data
– Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Oregon and Connecticut – each offer a readily searchable budget database of the type Fong’s bill details. Ohio’s online budget tool in particular has been cited for its ease of use and comprehensiveness.

U.S. PIRG dismisses the argument that such databases are expensive. Its California chapter (CalPIRG) has estimated it would cost $21,000 to set up with subsequent annual costs of about $40,000 per year.

The chapter has been after the state to do better on fiscal transparency for many years. In a 2009 report, CalPIRG blasted California for providing so little information online about more than $4 billion in corporate tax breaks and subsidies it gave out each year, including about $500 million in breaks for operating in economically distressed areas. It also said the state should provide online tools that would allow users to evaluate whether the breaks had actually helped the economies of distressed areas.

No hearing date has been set yet for Fong’s bill.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com