Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: Californians’ knowledge about civic finances is very disappointing

Quick, on what service does your city spend the most money? If your answer is more than a guess or a projection of your wishes, you know more than most Californians do.

Pity the poor California mayors and city council members. No, really. Constituents often want much more from government than they are willing to pay for. The public is frequently uninformed – or worse, misinformed – about the services cities provide. Representing us must be like having a boss who keeps demanding that you spend 70 additional hours writing efficiency reports per week ... without caring, or realizing, that it’s actually your co-worker who handles the efficiency report duties.

Is it really that bad? To find out, the Center for California Studies and the Institute for Social Research at Sacramento State surveyed Californians about their attitudes, knowledge and participation in local government.

You may not be surprised to hear that most Californians wanted to maintain or increase city spending on public safety, infrastructure and services like parks. You may be more surprised that they also favored spending on business subsidies and even public employee benefits. In fact, most people seem to like their city spending money. But only 4percent think that the local taxes that pay for such things are too low, whereas 10 times that many think that local taxes are too high. All the while, many of these same respondents say that cities should prioritize budgetary balance.

These contradictions may make more sense when you consider the disappointing levels of knowledge about civic finances we found. We asked five very basic knowledge questions, such as “Is your city budget in surplus, deficit or balance?” Only 1percent of those surveyed correctly answered all five. Two-thirds missed more questions than they got right.

Our most startling finding? This question: “Of the following choices, on what does your city or town spend the largest amount of money: public safety, food stamps, Medi-Cal or aid to other California cities, or are you not sure?”

Go ahead, answer for yourself.

The only possible correct answer is “public safety,” the only option that is even a municipal responsibility. Only 25percent got this right. Did you? Be honest. Clearly, many of us aren’t just clueless about municipal budgeting; more profoundly, we are confused about what cities even do.

We also measured engagement – how much citizens participate in and follow local government. On the bright side, the most informed and engaged respondents tended to see the connection between taxes and spending (e.g. those who wanted more spending recognized that they couldn’t simultaneously cut taxes and vice versa).

Unfortunately, those informed and engaged citizens are rare. Measured generously, only 7percent fit that category. Meanwhile, 65percent are uninformed and disengaged. Most troubling, though, are the 11percent who are engaged yet uninformed. These are the constituents elected officials dread.

Don’t get us wrong. We know that most Californians don’t obsess about the latest at city hall. Even if they didn’t, very few reporters these days are dedicated to a local government beat, especially in smaller cities and towns. So it’s no surprise that most Californians are not municipal government experts. But that attention and knowledge deficit has consequences.

We hear a lot about civic engagement and efforts to increase voting – everything from “Vote or Die” to reforms like same-day registration and multiple voting days. The message that doesn’t look as good on a billboard, though, is “Uninformed and Misinformed Voters can be Hazardous to our Civic Health.” Uninformed voters may not notice misuse of funds – as in the Southern California city of Bell. Misinformed voters may push unrealistically high expenditures, or unrealistically low tax levels, leaving cities with impossible fiscal options. That’s why moves to make it easier to vote need to be coupled with efforts to make it easier to understand government.

How? There’s no easy answer. Plenty of fine groups are dedicated to that goal, including our own. Studies like ours that raise awareness of the problem are a good step. More hands-on civics education in high schools and universities, and media coverage that works to inform – not just enrage or titillate – and that covers more local government issues would help.

Many people are hopeful that the tech boom, which has brought so much information to our fingertips, can connect us better to the institutions that serve us. Some of this is happening already. Online budgetary transparency has improved drastically in recent years thanks to organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation and OpenSecrets.org. “Hackathons” have been held to improve open government online. We applaud the cities opening themselves up to budgetary transparency on opengov.com. We are hopeful that more of that is on the horizon.

“What is my city council spending tax dollars on, and how can I weigh in?” We need an app for that.