In the electronic, big data age, “Golden State” excuses to keep public expenditures private are laughable.
Over the course of the last two years our organization, American Transparency, 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? That’s not just a lame excuse; it’s 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 for “every dollar spent by the state.”
Not producing this information raises a troubling question: What is California trying to hide?
There is no dispute that the CA Controller pays millions of bills annually. Their website admits the vast scope of activity: “about 46 million payments annually, 24 million through warrants (state equivalent of checks) and 22 million via electronic fund transfers (EFT). Daily that’s about 183,000 payments, 97,000 warrants and 86,000 ETF. Payments include, among other things, state departments operating costs and payroll, personal income tax refunds, and retirement warrants.”
But the on-the-record response provided to us by Rick Chivaro, Chief Counsel for State Controller’s Office, tells an entirely different story: “In California, there are approximately 500 CA state governmental agencies, departments and commissions each of which pay some or all of their vendors directly. The State Controller does not maintain a ‘check’ register dedicated solely to vendor payments made by every agency, board, and commission of the State of California.”
Earlier this month Chivaro doubled down on his response: “… Consequently, because of the way the claims are batched and processed by this office, we are unable to locate or otherwise provide you with the documents requested.”
California isn’t the only state that has played games with open records laws. In 2012, Illinois Republican Comptroller Judy Baar-Topinka tried to obfuscate our Freedom of Information Act request for the state spending record saying sarcastically, “the state doesn’t have a ‘magical checkbook’.” Guess what? The state doesn’t have magical revenues either. They come from hardworking taxpayers who shouldn’t have to obtain a search warrant to find out how their dollars are spent. So we sued and forced production of all line-by-line spending since 2005: a half million vendors for a half trillion dollars.
Just two days ago, 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. Originally, the excuses given by city officials roughly mirrored that of the California Controllers office.
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.
For example, our organization, American Transparency with our publically accessible data commons at OpenTheBooks.com, works with 48 of the 50 states to post online at least one year of their line-by-line state spending. 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.
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. Quite simply, they aren’t fulfilling their fiduciary duty under the law to ‘assist us’ gather the public records.
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.
Transparency is the foundation of smart government because it answers key questions in public policy: “How much does government really cost?” and “Are there indications of waste, fraud or corruption?”
How can citizens, journalists, watchdogs and politicians weigh-in on budget debates, help squeeze out efficiencies and corrupt practices without the ability to follow-the-money? If the citizenry does not know the impact government has on their lives, it has no ability to exercise its right of oversight or accountability.
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 Chairman of American Transparency and founder of the transparency website OpenTheBooks.com