California State Budget Could Get Data Format Makeover

A Senate committee has approved legislation that would require future state budgets be available in a downloadable spreadsheet format.

by Samantha Young, Techwire / March 30, 2017
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Searching a governor’s state budget proposal in California might get a lot easier.

A Senate committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would require future state budgets be available in a downloadable spreadsheet format — an effort to bring more public scrutiny to state expenditures.

“This is a good government measure to provide more transparency in our budgeting process,” bill author Sen. Henry Stern, D-Los Angeles, told the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, which approved the bill on a unanimous vote Wednesday.

“These are taxpayers' dollars. They are spent on incredibly important programs,” he added.

The problem Stern, told lawmakers, is that the public can’t access state budget information in a format that they can read.

Currently, the state budget is posted on the Department of Finance’s eBudget website in an HTML or PDF format. Word searches can be done, but it can’t be easily imported into a spreadsheet, such as Microsoft Excel, without special software  often making it difficult for the public to analyze with the data.

Stern’s bill would require the state's annual budget be made available in a downloadable, spreadsheet format by July 1, 2019, and available on the Department of Finance website for at least 10 years.

“It’s a common-sense approach and supports open data and the use of technology in a way that just continues to keep California leading on transparency and innovation,” said Andrea Deveau, the vice president of state policy and politics for TechNet, a network representing the nation’s leading technology companies.

Lawmakers approved the bill despite a staff committee analysis that questioned whether such a measure was needed. When asked about the bill’s requirements, the administration indicated its online budget tables could be converted to a downloadable spreadsheet within the next year, according to the analysis.

In addition, the state’s massive FI$Cal project will include a transparency website scheduled to be deployed by June 2019, which will include state expenditure data in “a comma-separated or tab-separated file format that is searchable, downloadable and compatible with a spreadsheet software application,” Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

Stern’s bill had initially called for the budget to posted as a machine-readable document with flexible data points, which the committee staff had described in their analysis as ambiguous. He amended the bill to require the budget be posted in a downloadable spreadsheet format and in line with what the administration has said it plans under the FI$Cal project.

The bill also requires the Department of Finance to develop a fiscal information system that will provide timely and uniform fiscal data, including online inquiry capacity and the ability to simulate budget expenditures and forecast revenues. The bill calls for that system to contain expenditures and encumbrances by program and a coding structure that indicates the categorization of expenditures and revenues.

This article was originally published on Techwire.