A Bid for Transparency Turns Murky

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

In an age when the quest for transparency in government is treated akin to securing the holy grail, Sen. John Moorlach’s “Financial Transparency Act” (SB 1251) has been frustrated by legislative hurdles. On Tuesday, the bill was turned aside on a party line vote although all members of the Public Employment and Retirement Committee did vote to reconsider the bill. The measure is designed to give voters a better understanding of the state government’s fiscal health.

Moorlach’s goal is to have “a citizen’s guide to numbers.” His proposal would have the Secretary of State publish in the state’s official voter guide and on the Internet figures showing the state’s fiscal situation. He even created a website to show what it might look like.

Voters who are called upon to make decisions on taxes, bonds and other economic matters – not to mention voting for candidates who will help manage the state’s finances – would find the information useful.

As noted on this site many times and corroborated in annual polling by the Public Policy Institute of California, voters’ knowledge of state budgetary matters is poor. They could use a little assist in following the numbers before voting.

So what’s the problem?

Public employee unions voiced objection to the bill. The Service Employees International Union, California Teachers Association, Professional Engineers in California Government, and California Professional Firefighters testified against it. They thought the information would be “confusing” and that enough information is already supplied to the voters through government agency material.

That would be the case if citizens knew where to find information within opaque government documents.

Moorlach wants the information where it can easily be viewed. Studies have shown that voters rely heavily on the state ballot booklet (voter guide) when they consider whom and what to vote for.

As to the opposition against his idea, Moorlach’s believes unions are concerned that the voters will find out the state’s huge liabilities, a good chunk of which is composed of pension obligations to public workers.

As of right now, state documents show the state liabilities outweigh its assets by nearly $43 billion, Moorlach said.

Moorlach intends to tweak the measure before bringing it back to the committee. He listened to committee concerns that some of the numbers reported to the public could be subjective. Trained as a CPA, Moorlach said he can make a change to his bill and still paint a factual picture of state finances to voters.

If Moorlach can convince the committee’s majority Democrats to ignore the unions’ objections, a massive hurdle in itself, he would have to guide the bill through an extraordinary obstacle course of three more committees before getting it to the governor’s desk.

The governor could prove to be another impediment.

Gov. Brown opposes the proposed November initiative that would require voters to approve revenue bonds that exceed $2 billion. Experts say the measure could interfere with two of Brown’s prized projects, the Delta Tunnels and High Speed Rail. If voters saw the amount of state liabilities in their ballot booklet they might be inclined to support an initiative that would give them a say on more bonds.

Still, transparency is a watchword in Sacramento. Perhaps others might take up the cause if roadblocks to SB 1251 in the legislature prove too great.

Could the Secretary of State add information to the ballot book on his own? Over the years, Secretaries of State have added information to the ballot booklet to help voters.

If that road is not paved for success there is always the initiative process.

Political reformer Charles Munger, Jr., who has thrown sizeable support behind California’s redistricting and primary election reforms, is now backing an initiative to add transparency to the legislative process by requiring bills to be in print three days before legislators vote on them. The idea is to avoid any back room, last minute deals that ignore public scrutiny.

If transparency is his goal, Munger might consider Moorlach’s proposal when he looks around for a future reform.

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