Report: Still more to do on state transparency

“Transparency” is one of those great political concepts nobody can really oppose – no matter where one stands on the political spectrum, there’s a desire to be able to see how government is working, how it’s making and spending its money.

At least 29 states have set up searchable online databases so people can search state expenditures, and a new report suggests that although California has made some strides, it still has plenty of room for improvement – especially as it continues grappling with an unprecedented fiscal crisis and governmental gridlock.

California Budget Transparency 2.0” by the California Public Interest Research Group notes the state’s “Reporting Transparency in Government” Web site does provide residents one-stop shopping for accountability information; state contracts paid by government agencies are keyword-searchable by department, supplier name, and price. The data can be downloaded as an Excel document as well, making it easier to analyze.

And it’s cheap, the report says: California’s Web site cost only $21,000 to create, and will cost under $40,000 per year to maintain. More than a million hits were logged in the site’s first six months.

But information on California’s more than $4 billion per year in corporate tax breaks and subsidies is absent from the site, CALPIRG’s report says. For example, the state grants about $500 million a year in tax subsidies to corporations doing business in economically depressed areas, in an attempt to bring jobs to areas that need them most; there’s no information available about the numbers of jobs this program creates, where those jobs are created, and whether they actually go to disadvantaged workers.

Also, certain quasi-public and independent government agencies – including the University of California, the California Prison Industry Authority, the California High-Speed Rail Authority and others – don’t report contracts on the state’s Web site. As such agencies handle a lot of public money, and their budget woes can cost the state significantly, this is a rather opaque spot amidst all the transparency.

And, perhaps most significantly, government contracts are listed on the Web site without their purposes, CALPIRG notes. That is, you can get a list of all the contracts with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but the site won’t give details of what goods or services the state received under each.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.