California gets a D-plus on government transparency

Democrats like to think of themselves as champions of transparency in government, but according to a new report from the California Public Interest Research Group, there is little difference between red states and blue states when it comes to openness.

That’s from the latest “Follow the Money” study from CALPIRG. That report, released Tuesday, rated California the 31st most transparent state in the country with an overall ranking of D+.   

But what may be most galling to politicos in the Golden State was who was on the top of that list: Texas. Texas, the home of California-bashing Gov. Rick Perry, tied for first place with Kentucky — a state John McCain won by 16 points in the 2008 presidential election. They received the only two solid “A”s on the list, with A- grades going to three other McCain wins: Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana.

You have to go all the way down to No. 6 on the list to find a solidly blue state, Massachusetts — albeit one that elected Mitt Romney as governor in 2003 and tapped moderate Republican Sen. Scott Brown in 2009. Two other states won by Obama, Oregon and New Jersey, round out the top 10.

“Red states and blue states really have nothing to do with how transparent a state is,” said Pedro Morillas, consumer advocate at CALPIRG.

What does have to do with it is offering online databases that can be used to track government expenditures, contracts, campaign donation and lobbying spending. These websites were further rated on ease of use, comprehensiveness and one-stop access to a variety of data.

But there is good news. California was one of the top 10 most-improved states, jumping from an aggregate score of 53 out of 100 in CALPIRG’s 2010 transparency report to 63 percent this time, thanks to new features rolled out on state websites.

Among the things our state is doing right, according to CALPIRG, is inviting outside groups and individuals to participate. The state launched a “Waste Watchers” website last year to invite people to write in suggestions for saving money, and has saved $28 million with suggestions and problems that were sent in. For instance, the Department of Toxic Substances Control yanked 190 little-used cell phones, months before new Gov. Jerry Brown issued an order in January calling on 48,000 employees to turn in their cell phones, saving the state an estimated $20 million annually.

Like many states, California has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. We get top marks on the ability to track expenditures and contractors. But we rank poorly when it comes to making this data usability, searchability and delivering in consistent formats.

But Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, said that California’s low rank may be deceptive in some ways. Her watchdog group is often critical of the state government, but says the state has done some positive things that don’t show up in CALPIRG’s report.

For instance, she said, the report places a lot of importance on having as much relevant data in one place, but California offers much of the same data through different state agency websites. She pointed to the tax expenditure reports offered by the Franchise Tax Board as an example. 

“I think they have too rigid a view of transparency,” Ross said, adding “I think there are places where California deserves credit.”

The 10 states at the very bottom of the list—those who lack most basic government transparency functions and appear to be doing little to add them—also has a very bipartisan look. It includes five red states like Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia, and five blue states including Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, and Washington.

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