Two of the most frequently used but infrequently followed words in Sacramento are "transparency" and "accountability." Gubernatorial administrations and legislators seem to understand the importance of these good-government terms when it comes to keeping the state's massive bureaucracy in check, but it's hard to stand up for such things when one's pet programs are on the line—or when powerful employee groups protect their own.
One of the most entertaining examples: After becoming the Senate president pro tempore, Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) shut down an oversight and accountability office started by his predecessor and staffed by former journalists who investigated the way state agencies were performing. But to prove that he wasn't against oversight, the Senate leader has slapped the "oversight" label on myriad Senate hearings.
The state tries in various ways to oversee the officials who spend tens of billions of tax dollars each year, but it's often a cumbersome process. Even when misbehavior is spotlighted by a news story or an inspector general report, it's rare to see individual officials get punished. That's been a source of frustration for a number of legislators from both parties on a wide variety of projects ranging from the Bay Bridge reconstruction to the high-speed rail project.
Last year, former state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) called for criminal investigation into the problems that plagued the Bay Bridge project, which was completed a decade late and billions of dollars above budget. As the Sacramento Bee reported, DeSaulnier said a Senate report shows Caltrans "knowingly accepted substandard work at taxpayer expense." Now a congressman, he told Politico last year he wants state and federal reviews of the bridge project. "Someone should be held accountable," he told the publication.
That project and others prompted legislators to pass a bill in 2013 by DeSaulnier to require agency heads to sign a statement declaring the information in official reports is true to the best of their knowledge. It was vetoed, but has come back in a bill by Assembly members Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) and Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita).
"This bill would also make any person who declares as true any material matter pursuant to these provisions that he or she knows to be false, liable for a civil penalty not to exceed $20,000," according to AB 1566's official bill language. Patterson has been an outspoken critic of the $68 billion high-speed rail project Gov. Jerry Brown is committed to building. An investigative report last year regarding that project is a main impetus.
One of the project's main contractors, Parsons Brinckerhoff, produced a confidential report showing that the cost of building the project's first phase had gone up by 31 percent. The Los Angeles Times reported that the firm "briefed state officials on the estimate in October 2013, according to the document… But the state used a lower cost estimate when it issued its 2014 business plan four months later." The newspaper was given the report by an engineer—the rail authority would not provide it under the state public-records act.
After the report, some Republican legislators including Patterson called on Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) to subpoena the report. They complained that the Legislature used those inaccurately low budget numbers "to continuously appropriate 25 percent of cap-and-trade revenue for high-speed rail."
The legislators haven't gotten any satisfaction since that conflagration, so the legislation is their response. "In a perfect world, I would like to be able to put everyone who comes before a committee under oath," Patterson told me. "The Democrats won't even consider that. So agency officials are giving us happy talk… This is why people don't trust the government." Even if the governor is likely to veto it, Patterson said the bill "will send a very clear signal there are some watchdog members here."
And Wilk emphasized this bill isn't just about the rail project. "We do not fulfill our constitution duty (to provide) proper oversight. We can barely do the minimum." He pointed to several examples of state bureaucratic scandals that call out for more accountability.
In 2012 the Sacramento Bee reported on the state parks department, which squirreled away $54 million in a hidden account "because the parks department had a pattern of underreporting the actual size of the funds in its regular dealings with the state Department of Finance." Ultimately the parks director resigned and another employee was fired. That's some level of accountability, but there's often little recourse.
Would AB 1566 change much? Critics see it as little more than symbolism. Whatever the case, it would be nice to see some transparent oversight hearings that evaluate the state of transparency and oversight in the state bureaucracy.