Walters: California once led in government transparency. It descended into secrecy and opacity

California once was a national leader in making government more transparent, requiring state and local agencies to conduct their business in public meetings and giving Californians easy access to public records.

In recent years, however, transparency has eroded. The Legislature has retreated into semi-secrecy, particularly on the state budget but also on other major legislation. Due to a construction project, legislative offices have been moved from the Capitol to an almost impenetrable building, making in-person contact more difficult.

Behind those well-guarded doors, decisions are made and deals are cut and the outcomes are simply announced and enacted with sometimes little or no meaningful debate. In recent years, governors and legislators have been using budget “trailer bills” to pass major changes in policy with little or no notice.

The descent into secrecy has, for obvious reasons, coincided with the advent of one-party government. The dominant Democrats can ignore media and the larger public because they know their numbers insulate them from accountability.

The increasing opacity of state government decision making is compounded by its having data systems that are clunky and often offer only outdated information. Cal-Access, the system that contains political information, such as campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, is especially difficult to use and efforts to improve it have themselves been sporadic.

Projects to modernize the state’s information technology have been underway for decades, but have experienced numerous delays and failures despite costing billions of dollars.

A poster child for the data shortcomings is the Financial Information System of California, which has the catchy acronym of FI$Cal. It was envisioned many years ago as a comprehensive financial management tool for all state agencies but is only partially operational.

One aspect of FI$Cal’s situation is that California is chronically tardy in reporting its financial picture. State Controller Maila Cohen recently released the state’s “Comprehensive Financial Report,” a nearly 400-page document required by law to be prepared each year. It was a report on the 2021-22 fiscal year that should have been issued a year earlier, but wasn’t because FI$Cal and other data systems could not generate timely and accurate numbers.

Cohen acknowledged its tardiness in a cover letter, saying it “will mark the fifth consecutive year that California has published its financial statements well beyond the regulatory deadline of nine months after the fiscal year end,” and blamed it on FI$Cal and other technical shortcomings.

The state auditor’s office, which is charged with reviewing the annual financial report, has been highly critical of FI$Cal’s implementation in a series of audits for the Legislature. Three years ago, the office issued a report saying that FI$Cal’s deficiencies were chronically delaying the state’s annual economic reports, and noting that delays were hindering the state’s ability to borrow money and execute funding agreements.

Obviously little has happened since to rectify that embarrassing failure. The 2022-23 financial report should have been released this month, but it will probably be a year late as well.

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California’s shortcomings in transparency have not gone unnoticed outside the state. This week, an organization called Truth in Accounting, which monitors financial information management across the nation, issued a 50-state scorecard on transparency and California scored third from the bottom.

States were graded on such issues as the timeliness and accuracy of their financial reports, and their candor — or lack of it — in reporting financial obligations such as unfunded liabilities of their public pension systems.

A perfect score would have been 100. New York was rated No. 1 with 86 points, followed by Wyoming and Hawaii. California’s score was 48, higher than only Illinois and Georgia.

That’s shameful.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist. 

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