California wants to keep $300 billion in spending a secret

When it comes to spending your tax dollars, California holds a unique and unpleasant distinction: it’s the only state in the nation that does not share its line-by-line expenditures with the public.That needs to change. Each of the other 49 states respond to our open records requests by revealing what they spent and whom they paid.

Then, citizens can decide how effective state agencies are at improving their lives.

But California? Its roughly $300 billion in expenditures can go without scrutiny. Controller Betty Yee says her office does not keep a central database with all the checks written by over 500 state agencies. Worse, she says nearly 200,000 payments in a given year are only recorded on paper, their justifications held together with string.

In other words, Yee doesn’t seem to be doing much “controlling.”

Our effort to pry open the state’s checkbook began back in 2013. Our organization at submitted a sunshine request for the line-by-line state payments. The controller rejected the request.

In 2020, we tried again. When Yee’s office rejected our latest request, we sued for the information. The case took two years in Sacramento Superior Court, and the proceedings included Yee’s revelation about the 200,000 paper-and-string records, as well as the ridiculous claim that her office would have to review all 50 million expenditures by hand. Therefore, she argued her office should be able to completely reject our request and produce nothing.

Amazingly, the presiding judge, Hon. Steven M. Gercever, agreed. In January, he ruled that the burden on Controller Yee’s office outweighed the public interest in disclosing the information. That burden, of course, is the result of California’s own poor recordkeeping.

There’s plenty of reason to believe these records need a closer look and taxpayers deserve to be able to follow the money.

In 2006, when then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama partnered with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to sponsor the Google Your Government Act of 2006 which opened the federal checkbook to sunshine for the first time in history, he said:

“I know that restoring transparency is not only the surest way to achieve results, but also to earn back the trust in government.”

The first step in holding Sacramento accountable is simply seeing where they spend our money. Is the spending in the public interest or the special interest? Was there evidence of self-dealing? Which state program actually helped people who have real needs?

We believe transparency is transformational. Transparency will revolutionize California public policy and politics. So, OpenTheBooks will do what Yee’s office will not: we aresubmitting some 500 separate records requests to each and every state agency. Then, like a jigsaw puzzle, we will assemble California’s checkbook for the public.

Think of it as the public spending genome project. When scientists mapped the human genome, it ushered in a new era of medical progress. When we map all of state spending, just think of the possibilities.

Take for example the recent waste at the California Employment Development Office. Readers will remember that last October, Director Rita Saenz admitted the state had paid more than $20 billion worth of improper unemployment claims. Digging deeper, the Associated Press reported they’d found a minimum of $810 million paid out “in the names of people who were in prison, including dozens of infamous killers on death row.”

Elsewhere in the state government, more than $2 million was wasted when Department of Public Health employees defrauded the government. They were charging personal expenses like “tickets to sporting events, concerts and restaurants” by using “gift cards [and phony companies],” the Fresno Bee reported.

What else haven’t we heard about?

Also last year, while California was reporting a $75 billion surplus, The American Rescue Plan Act was working its way through Congress. The law ultimately provided a massive $26 billion “bailout” of state government. Where is that money being spent and who are the contractors benefiting from this largess?

We shouldn’t have to wait for piecemeal investigations and sporadic scandals to emerge. All state spending should be exposed online, in real time. Californians deserve these insightsjust as much as New Yorkers, Iowans, Michiganders or Floridians.

Since Controller Yee and the Newsom administration won’t open the books, we’ll do it for them.

Adam Andrzejewski is the CEO and founder of – the largest private database of U.S. public-sector expenditures.