The Warm California Sun Needs to Shine in The Dark Corners of Government Operations

Gov. Gavin Newsom promised greater transparency in California government. Jerry Brown was elected secretary of state 50 years ago on a transparency platform. While serving one of his terms in what nearly turned out to be a “governor-for-life” political career, Brown said he was “committed to keeping state government open and transparent.” Arnold Schwarzenegger also pledged a commitment to transparency.

Yet in 2020, California is the only state that refuses to open its books to independent auditors.

“Every single year for the past seven years, our auditors have filed a request with all 50 states to simply procure the line-by-line spending transactions in those states,” Adam Andrzejewski, founder and chief executive of Open The Books, recently told the Pacific Research Institute.

And every single year California “has rejected our request for the state checkbook.”

Frustrated with the resistance, and firmly believing that “public spending information should be posted publicly, period,” Andrzejewski’s group has sued the state. The complaint, filed in the California Superior Court in Sacramento County, asks the court to “disclose various records concerning state spending information, including records reflecting line-by-line vendor payments,” and argues the plaintiffs “have faced at various points delay, obfuscations, and inadequate justification for the agency’s refusal to provide a reasoned determination and responsive records.”

The state is not arguing, says Andrzejewski, that there is an exemption that allows it to refuse to release the records. It’s simply denying the request.

What Might It Be Hiding?

Lawsuits worked in Illinois and Wyoming. So Andrzejewski is confident “we’re going to win” in California.

“We’re on great legal footing,” he says.

So why is California resisting? What might it be hiding?

Andrzejewski says that through the records, the public can confirm that state Controller Betty Yee is “actually doing her job,” that every payment is made without “waste, fraud, corruption or abuse.”

According to Andrzejewski, Yee’s website says that “since she took office in 2015, she’s actually flagged about $4 billion worth of payments,” which, he said, “sounds like a lot of money until you consider the fact that during that period, the state of California … paid $1.5 trillion worth of bills. Betty Yee is probably the only one out of 40 million Californians who believes that 99.7% of all state spending has been proper.

“Nobody believes that.”

Unlocking the books will also give voters a clear look into the murky world of politics, where influence is often bought and sold.

“One of the first things we would do with the California state checkbook, and this probably sends shivers up their spine, we would take the state vendor list, who received how much money last year, and we would run that against Gov. Newsom’s campaign donor disclosures,” says Andrzejewski.

Open The Books did exactly that in 2018 when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown was running for reelection. It “found that she had a pattern of soliciting state vendors for campaign cash,” he says.

It’s Clear That More Sunlight Is Needed Throughout the State

There have been efforts to force transparency on California before. One recent attempt in the Assembly, the Budget Transparency Act of 2017, would have opened the spending records line-item by line-item in an online database.

It was never passed.

A year earlier, voters approved Proposition 54, which requires that all bills to be available to legislators and “posted on the Internet for at least 72 hours before the Legislature could pass it.” It further mandated that all of the Legislature’s public meetings would be recorded and the videos posted on the web within 24 hours.

Though it passed with more than 65% approval, and has removed a bit of the darkness of the process, “the Assembly has disregarded it,” the Victorville Daily Press editorial board said in 2017, in “about as brazen a violation of law by elected representatives as we’ve seen.”

The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote that same year that Assembly leaders were “thumbing their noses” at voters “by refusing to live up to the law.”

Even Fi$Cal, the Financial Information System for California, recognizes that “in recent years, California has ranked at or near the bottom nationally when it comes to financial transparency.”

It’s clear that more sunlight is needed throughout the state, from Sacramento to the smallest city government and special district. The public has the right to know what its elected officials are doing, down to the details.

About the Author 

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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