Back in 2014, Transparent California was launched by the California Public Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute. The site provides the public with access to an easily searchable database of public employee compensation free of charge. As a result of this new publicly available information, there has been a large amount of backlash regarding both the salaries of public employees as well as the accuracy of the information on the website.
Employee compensation is almost always the largest component of a government’s budget, and certain actors have become concerned that public employees might be being overcompensated, thus taking away from the pool of public funds that could be used for other things. In recent years, pension plans of public employees have come under fire in particular, as some have claimed that they’ve been used as a way to silently transfer inordinate amounts of wealth to public employees.
While Transparent California clearly was meant to increase public understanding of government compensation packages, it seems to have raised more questions than it’s answered in many ways. How accurate are the figures stated on Transparent California? Are public employees receiving overly generous compensation packages? This article will examine these questions with the hopes of clarifying some things about Transparent California and the public employees who appear on it.
What Is Transparent California?
Transparent California collects information from public records that have been requested by the California Public Policy Center and Nevada Policy Research Institute. Both of these organizations identify themselves as think tanks devoted to increasing the availability of government policy information to the public.
When looking at the California Public Policy Center’s website, they portray themselves as being a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. However, if you look at the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s website, it seems pretty clear that they lean to the right side of the aisle, claiming that they’re trying to free citizens from “the constraints and abuses of an ever-growing crony government”. Such verbiage has raised major questions about just how nonpartisan Transparent California actually is.
Additionally, it seems that the records on Transparent California may be somewhat incomplete. According to the site, certain government entities have refused to provide information about certain individuals’ names or compensation information. In this case, Transparent California has displayed as much information as they have been able to gather.
As a result of the government’s refusals to provide certain information, several legal disputes have arisen debating whether or not these refusals constitute a violation of California’s Public Records Act, which requires the government to provide public citizens with government records upon request, unless an exemption applies. There are quite a few specific exemptions included in the Act; however, there is one exemption that gives the government far more discretion as to when they can refuse to provide public records. This exemption states that they can refuse to provide public records if “the public interest served by not making the record public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record”. This statement seems very general and gives the government quite a bit of wiggle room for refusal.
While some right-wing political activists have attempted to use Transparent California to prove that government compensation packages have become unjustly extravagant, there is some uncertainty as to just how accurate and nonpartisan the information on the site is. In an effort to verify the information on TransparentCalifornia.com, some have begun cross-checking it with information on the State Controller’s Government Compensation website. Both sites should, in theory, contain the same information; however, the SCO’s website does not include employee names. Interestingly, though, many of the figures on the SCO’s website seem to be out of alignment with the figures on Transparent California.
With all of the distrust that has built towards Transparent California, it’s worth questioning whether the site is simply trying to increase public understanding of government compensation, or trying to forward a political agenda. Are the discrepancies between Transparent California and the SCO’s website simply matters of miscalculation, or intentional misrepresentations? Should you be concerned about government employee compensation packages becoming overly large?
PERS Inflation Disputes
One topic that has become hotly debated is the burden that the Public Employee Retirement System, or PERS, is placing on public funds. At the current moment, the PERS in California and Nevada both have very large debts to the employees who they are meant to compensate. The estimated pension obligations far exceed the current values of the assets of either agency, and some are blaming this on the overcompensation of government employees.
As a result, the state governments seem to be using more and more funds to pay down these pension obligations, taking away from the pool of funds that could be used for other purposes. Citizens have become outraged at the amount of money being paid into PERS, and are calling for reductions in pension compensation for public employees, often citing individuals’ salary and pension figures from Transparent California as evidence of overcompensation.
While certain citizens have claimed massive increases in PERS benefits in recent years, debaters on the other side of the argument have questioned the validity of the information on Transparent California. Left-wing activists have routinely asserted that the information on the site is skewed due to the political leanings of the California Public Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute, and is overexaggerating PERS benefit inflation in the two states.
However concerning increasing PERS debt obligations may be, it’s worth looking at the possible motivations that the creators of TransparentCalifornia.com might have for spreading biased or incorrect information about government compensation.
Should You Trust Transparent California?
The clear political biases of the California Public Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute have caused great concern over whether or not the information on Transparent California is truly nonpartisan and representationally faithful. The Nevada Policy Research Institute, which is known to be funded by billionaires like David and Charles Koch, in particular seems to have a clear political agenda of transferring funds from the public to the private sector. Their mission statement also proclaims their devotion to eliminating “unnecessary governmental restrictions on the citizens and businesses of Nevada”.
While the free market motives of the Nevada Policy Research Institute are certainly not inherently bad, they do suggest that Transparent California could have some political bias baked into it. However, despite the fact that some of the information on the site has been proven inaccurate, these discrepancies could be easily explained by faulty record-keeping. Since all of the information on TransparentCalifornia.com is taken directly from government records, it seems unlikely that either of the think tanks responsible for the site would be able to skew this information in any overt way without destroying their credibility.
In my opinion, it seems likely that the information on Transparent California is as representationally faithful as it can be, with any inaccuracies being caused by miscalculations rather than intentional political biases. This information, however, is being used by columnists on both sides of the aisle to support their already foregone conclusions.
As with any publicly available information, political actors will try to use it to support their viewpoints, oftentimes misrepresenting the information. This does not make the information itself untrustworthy, but the way that it is being represented untrustworthy. In summary, I do think that the information on Transparent California is, for the most part, trustworthy. However, it is important to keep a close eye on anyone who might be trying to use this information to their own political ends, and it is important to watch out for information that might be inaccurate due to aging or incompleteness.