McClintock, Garrick seek online account of state spending

Two Republican legislators have introduced bills that would require the State Controller’s Office to put government spending information into an easily searchable online database.

Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Carlsbad, filed his AB1843 on Jan. 28. Senator Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, introduced SB1494 on Feb. 21. Each calls on the state to create a Web site, accessible to the public for free, disclosing what the state is spending money on. Both legislators describe a similar motivation for their bills.

“Sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” McClintock said. “If the expenditures are all up on the Web where they can bee seen by anyone, I think a great deal more care is going to be put in how this money is spent.”

There are differences in the bills. McClintock’s bill, dubbed the Taxpayer Transparency Act of 2008, would direct each state agency to create a database of expenditures of $1,000 or more. Contracts and purchase orders would be included, but transfers between departments would be exempted. Garrick’s bill would charge the State Controller’s Office with creating a database for all state spending, with assistance from the Department of Technology Services. It does not contain a minimum amount under which an expenditure would be exempted.

Both legislators say they hope an initial technology investment will eventually lead to ferreting out where the state is wasting money and result on lower state spending. Whether this happens through public pressure or more effective limits on spending written into law remains to be seen. “Let’s start with the audits, then we’ll see how long the teeth have to be, and how sharp,” Garrick said.

Controller John Chiang said his office supports Garrick’s bill in concept, though they’re still looking at the details.

“Assemblyman Garrick’s bill has an objective that is clear and important: to build and re-establish trust between California government and the people we serve,” Chiang said.

Both bills currently lack estimates for how much they would cost, and both legislators downplayed the idea that the current state fiscal crisis could make it hard to pay for the needed technology upgrades. But Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s office recently said it hasn’t had the money to do some of the planned upgrades to the Cal-Access campaign finance database. In late February, Fair Political Practices Commission Chairman Ross Johnson said he would oppose any “unfunded mandates” on his department.

“It’s going to cost a good amount of money,” Chiang said of creating a spending database.

For one thing, Chiang said, many state agencies lack experience in evaluating outside technology providers and getting the best bids. Others have noted that the state has a lot of disparate and obsolete computer database systems.

But Chiang said the bills dovetail well with the Financial Information System for California, or FI$CAL, which his office has been working on for the past two years. It calls for state to “establish a single source of financial information through the establishment of a single statewide financial management system.” However, it lacks the explicit direction of creating a free, searchable database. It also comes with a big price tag: $1.6 billion over 12 years.  

While the details will probably take years to work out, government watchdog groups say the searchable databases McClintock and Garrick are calling for will become standard for state and even local governments across the country — and should help save money in the long run. Edwin Bender, the executive director of the Montana-based Institute on Money in State Politics, said 22 states now have some version of what the bills call for.

About a dozen of these states have relatively sophisticated databases that can be used to look deeply at state spending, Bender said. On Friday, the institute will launch an interactive database that can be used to match up members of legislative committees with campaign donations by industry for all 50 states. The Institute also has plans to create a database that would like up campaign finance data with government spending, allowing users to see, for instance, if companies that gave large donations ended up benefiting from government spending.

“I think it’s where states are going,” Bender said. “What we’ve found is the more data you make available to the public, the more they want. With the Internet, there is an expectation of more information.”

Both legislators said it might be difficult for politicians to oppose their bills publicly because they match so well with public opinion. However, they also said they expect some pushback from state agencies. On Wednesday, the State Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents many state workers, protested at the offices of the Sacramento Bee after the paper posted an online database of state worker salaries. Union representatives said that the database is an invasion of privacy and that at least one state worker had been found by a hostile ex-husband.

McClintock’s bill contains a clause that would allow such specific information to be exempted. But he also said some groups might raise concerns that are really red herrings.

“This is not something I expect the bureaucracy to welcome,” he said.

Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, agreed. In a presentation he gave in Sacramento two weeks ago as part of the California Capital Campus speakers series, he noted that there are already many laws requiring various federal, state and local governments to make information available. Many of these agencies, in turn, do the absolute minimum: For instance, data is released on paper but not made available to search engines.

“Today, meaningful disclosure means online disclosure,” Brito said.

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