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Bringing Transparency Into California’s Budget

Bob WIlliams
President, State Budget Solutions

Congress and the federal government are notorious for their overuse of closed door negotiations, back door wheeling and last minute bill amendments. This lack of transparency, however, occurs not just inside the DC Beltway but also in Sacramento.  Tragically, California legislators too often leave the public out and present legislation as a fait accompli. This is especially true when California legislators create their state budget.

In the past few years, California has seen horrendous budget deficits and ineffective legislators who keep the public out of the debate that frankly the taxpayers are bankrolling. It is a disservice to every voter and needs to end prior to the 2013 budget discussions.

There are simple changes that the California legislature can do to shine light into their budget process. Most of these changes won’t cost California a penny but will bring transparency back to The Golden State.

Among the most obvious change is for California to create and maintain a user-friendly transparent budget website that includes performance measurements. Taxpayers deserve to know where and how government spends their tax dollars.  They want to know what results are actually achieved with their hard-earned tax dollars. Yet citizens have a difficult time finding out exactly how their state is spending their money and what is actually achieved with those investments.

The budget website needs to include:

  • State expenditures by fund or account.
  • Expenditures by agency, program, and subprogram.
  • State revenues by source.
  • State expenditures by budget object and sub-object.
  • State agency workloads, caseloads, and performance measurements.
  • Historical information on state spending as well as access to state service contracts.

Secondly, California needs to adopt a 72-hour budget timeout before a budget is voted on.  Additionally, the budget should include a balance sheet reflecting the estimated revenue and budget for the budget period. Any fund transfers or other gimmicks should be listed separately.  In far too many cases, state budget public hearings are held the same day as the budget is introduced and before the public has time to read it.  Thus, not allowing adequate time for public input. The final budget is often presented to lawmakers to vote at the last minute and before legislators have time to read the entire finalized budget.

One of the major gimmicks states have used to balance the budget is to not fund the actuarial required contribution to pensions.  As such, California needs to have the actuarial determined pension contribution along with the actual pension contribution, and should be published along with the budget.

To ensure transparency throughout the budget process, California must demand that no budget amendment (other than technical amendments) shall be considered unless it has been posted online for at least 24 hours prior to the vote. The public and all legislators should have access to budget amendments.  Too often, state government approves wasteful spending, as lobbyists exploit the lack of visibility of what amendments actually do and cost.

Similarly, all other legislation that contains an appropriation should have a published fiscal note before a vote is taken on the legislation. Fiscal notes provide invaluable information for the public and legislators in detailing the actual cost of proposed legislation.

By making these easy changes, California can bring greater transparency to the state budget process and allow the public to be involved in all steps of the process. Transparency in California is more than just a campaign promise.  Transparency is a necessary tool. Long before Google searches, the Founders crafted the Bill of Rights precisely because freedom of information and an informed, engaged citizenry is essential to self-government. Citizen engagement is crucial. Success depends on transparency, accountability and the ability of informed citizens to secure the information they need to participate in reform and hold elected officials accountable.

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