Data Surfer

Sites you need to see

Since California taxation is on many people's minds, it's timely that the U.S. Census today released its latest data on state taxes. Total taxes collected by the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) reached $781.8 billion in 2008. That's a 5.1 percent increase over 2007. These figures cover the whole range of state taxation -- from property, sales, and income taxes to the various licenses fees, such as vehicle, alcohol and hunting. There's a spreadsheet breaking out each type of tax for every state. California amassed $117.4 billion in 2008, with the biggest share coming from individual income taxes ($55.7 billion). 

Ranked by per capita taxes collected, California comes out 12th in the nation (see table below). Alaska leads the states by a large margin because of its huge oil severance tax.

State 2008 population     Total state taxes Per capita
U.S. total 304,059,724 $781,787,281,000 $2,571
Alaska 686,293 $8,424,714,000 $12,276
Vermont 621,270 $2,544,163,000 $4,095
Wyoming 532,668 $2,168,016,000 $4,070
Hawaii 1,288,198 $5,147,480,000 $3,996
Connecticut 3,501,252 $13,367,631,000 $3,818
North Dakota 641,481 $2,312,056,000 $3,604
New Jersey 8,682,661 $30,616,510,000 $3,526
Minnesota 5,220,393 $18,320,891,000 $3,509
Massachusetts 6,497,967 $21,836,357,000 $3,360
Delaware 873,092 $2,930,955,000 $3,357
New York 19,490,297 $65,400,355,000 $3,356
California 36,756,666 $117,361,976,000 $3,193


California shoppers will face a 1 percent hike in sales tax next Wednesday. This temporary tax increase is a response to the state's fiscal crisis. It will expire on July 1, 2011 or 2012, depending on whether voters approve Proposition 1A (the Budget Stabilization Act) in the May 19 election.

When the California statewide sales tax began in 1933, the rate was a mere 2.50 percent. Localities got to impose a sales tax of their own starting in 1962. For a historic summary of the state and local tax rates, check out this Board of Equalization chart. On April 1 the basic rate rises to 8.25 percent (consisting of a 7.25 percent state rate, a .75 percent city/county rate and a .25 percent local transportation rate). If that weren't enough, some places are subject to special district sales tax. You can look up the specific total rate for your city here.

The Obama White House has been chastised for not filling key administrative positions, particularly at the U.S. Treasury Department, which is at the center of the economic recovery effort. The fault, apparently, lies in hyper-scrutiny of appointees and a slow Senate confirmation process.

Almost every day the Administration announces more nominations -- which you can read at the White House Briefing Room. But for a really elegant tool to track Obama appointments, consult the Washington Post's Head Count page. It maintains an up-to-date list of the 486 Senate-approved positions, searchable by name, agency and status (open, nominated, withdrawn, confirmed, etc.). Head Count also features an interactive graphic and database for analyzing the timing, demographics and prior political connections of the President's choses. Very cool.  

The federal economic recovery program is the object of intense scrutiny by journalists, taxpayer groups and anyone else concerned with how the federal government is spending $787 billion in stimulus money. But how transparent is the process? The investigative news site, ProPublica, is tracking how well state governments are keeping citizens informed of their use of recovery funds. There's a handy chart with links to each state's stimulus site along with a brief evaluation. Here's what ProPublica thinks of California's online reporting:

California's stimulus site describes the governor's quarterly reporting obligations to Washington, but doesn't offer any additional accountability resources or plans to implement them. Links to state and federal agencies and funding breakdowns by category are available, but there is no information about specific projects.

Indeed, the state's recovery site currently lacks details on programs that will receive stimulus money. But it notes the Governor is required to submit quarterly reports to Congress and the federal granting agency that disclose: 1) How funds will be used; 2) whether funds were used correctly; 3) jobs created/sustained by the funds; and 4) non-federal funding sources used to complete projects. The state promises to post these reports promptly on the web site.

We'll have to see.

Sunshine Week culminated last Friday with a national live webcast to discuss White House efforts to make federal government more transparent and participatory. "Opening Doors: Finding the Keys to Open Government" featured a panel composed of adminstration officials and government accountability experts, who took questions from viewing groups located across the country. You can watch the full recorded event here

During the webcast two groups, and Center for Techology and Democracy reported on the results of their recent survey, "Show Us the Data: Most Wanted Federal Documents". The report highlighted the ten types of government records respondents cited as most needing to be easy to find and easy to use online. Not surprisingly (considering the economic crisis) number two on the list was "information about the use of TARP and bailout funds". But the top need was "public access to all Congressional Research Service reports". The CRS produces in-depth studies for lawmakers on a variety of topics, ranging from foreign policy to health care. Although paid for by taxpayers, these documents are neither publicized, nor made available on the Internet, as a matter of routine.    

March 19, 2009
Historic bankruptcy stats

bankruptcy.jpgThe Bee's Darrell Smith recently reported a 79 percent increase in bankruptcy filings in the Central Valley from 2007 to 2008. The sources of those statistics is the U.S. Eastern District Bankruptcy Court of California, and on its web site you can find quarterly and annual data for all U.S. courts going back to 1983. Twenty-six years ago the number of business and individual filings totalled 374,734 in the United States (11,393 in the Central Valley). In 2008 U.S. courts handled 967,831 filings (24,670 in the Central Valley).



Federal demographers have released their latest (July 1, 2008) estimates of population for the nation's counties and metropolitan regions (MSAs). Caspio, a software company which hosts many of The Bee's online databases, has made this information easily searchable. Check out the 2007 and 2008 county and MSA figures. Sacramento County grew by almost 14,000 people, or one percent from 2007-2008. The region grew by almost 28,000, an increase of 1.3 percent during that same period.

The Sunshine Week survey mentioned in the previous I-Tool posting specifically chides California for not making statements of economic interest electronically accessible to the public. The Fair Political Practices Commission requires state officials to file the annual Form 700 to disclose assets, income sources and business ownerships. The intent is to prevent economic conflicts of interest in their governmental roles. If a public official finds himself in a potential conflict of interest, he may be obligated by state law to disqualify himself "from making or participating in a governmental decision, or using his or her official position to influence or attempt to influence a governmental decision".

So far the FPPC only keeps Form 700 filings in paper. But for the past two years, The Bee has obtained photocopies, scanned them and posted them to the web site. You can examine 2007 and 2008 disclosures filed by Consititutional officeholders, Equalization Board members, senators and Assembly members here.

SWlogo.gifAdvocates of transparent government have collaborated to publicize the important role of freedom of information in a functioning democracy. Sunshine Week (March 15-21) aims to open a dialogue about the public's right to know what its government is doing--and why.

On Sunday The Bee reported on the results of a nationwide study of how accessible state government information is online. The Sunshine Week survey judged each state's commitment to open records by checking the availability of a standard "laundry list" of essential data and documents, such as inspections of child care facilities, school buses, hospitals, nursing homes, school test scores, campaign contributions, etc. Turns out California has a pretty mixed record in access to online public information.

Sunshine Week participants include many organizations (newspapers, broadcasters, advocacy groups) which in one way or another, advance citizen access to government information. Some of the important California groups: 

California First Amendment Coalition (a non-profit, non-partisan education and advocacy organization whose mission "is to protect and promote freedom of expression and the people's right to know").
Californians Aware: The Center for Public Forum Rights (a nonprofit organization established to foster open governmental meetings and records, and to assist journalists and others who are blocked in their access to public information).
California Common Cause ("a non-partisan citizen's organization whose goal is to ensure open, honest and accountable government").
California Newspaper Publishers Association (the newspaper trade group which has been an advocate for legislation enhancing the public's access to public meetings and records.)

With funds from the federal economic stimulus (aka The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) making their way to the states, policy wonks will be happy to know about a full-text searchable version of the 407-page legislation. Essentially, the bill has been transformed into a text database, which you search by division, title, section, and keyword. With free-text keyword searching, you can use the usual arsenal of research tools, such as Boolean operators (AND, OR and NOT), wildcards, proximity, etc.

This resource is provided by askSam, a software company, whose web site features a interesting collection of searchable political and governmental texts. Notable examples: the Patriot Act; Sarbanes-Oxley legislation; 9/11 Commission Report; Mitchell Report on steroids in basball; Samuel Alito and John Roberts confirmation hearing transcripts; Barack Obama speeches 2002-2009; and State of the Union Addresses from 1790 on.  

President Obama today warned state officials to spend their share of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan (Recovery and Reinvestment Act) as wisely as possible. It's still unclear exactly how much money each state will get. But the Center for American Progress has estimated every state's allocation and compared it to their Gross State Products. CAP's color-coded map divides the states into three groups according to the allocation's percent of GSP (under 3.5 percent, 3.5-4.5 percent and over 4.5 percent). California is in the mddle tier. The estimated state funding levels have also been compared to population. On a per capita basis, California ranks 18th in projected stimulus spending ($1,760.89). The District of Columbia ranks first ($2,598.07).  

The Bee today launched a cool interactive map showing the increase in home foreclosures in Sacramento County during the second week of January 2005-2009. Click the "start" button and you'll see each foreclosure plotted on the map, giving a vivid picture of which neighborhoods have been hit the hardest over that period. To get a national perspective, check out the New York Fed's dynamic map showing the foreclosure rate (per 1000 housing units) in every state and county in the country. This data is up-to-date as of January of this year.

The Bee also updated its interactive map of unemployment data for all California counties. The counties are color-coded to show which ones have suffered the worst joblessness. For the national outlook, the New York Times posted a new map with jobless data for every county in the United States. The overall pattern is no surprise: the recession -- as measured by job loss -- is severest in the West, Southeast and upper Midwest.

The Obama Administration has been criticized for keeping earmarks in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill (despite campaign promises). An earmark is language inserted into an appropriations bill that directs money to a specific project -- often at the request of a Congress member. It has become a symbol of pork-barrel politics at its worst.

The non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense identified 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion in the 2009 omnibus bill. TCS compiled their findings in a handy spreadsheet which you can browse by Congress member, state or city. A quick check for Sacramento reveals 14 requested projects, the most expensive being $7 million for a south city extension to light rail. Here are the other projects:


Amount Description House Member(s) Senate Member(s)
$7,000,000 South Sacramento Light Rail Extension, CA Matsui Boxer; Feinstein
$950,000 Intermodal Terminal Facility and Track Railroad Relocation, Sacramento, CA Matsui; Thompson, Mike Boxer; Feinstein
$500,000 California State DOJ Vision 2015 - Criminal Justice Information Sharing Project Honda  
$500,000 SEARCH, National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics DeLauro; Kennedy, Patrick; Matsui; Rogers, Harold Leahy
$476,000 California Health and Human Services Agency, Sacramento, CA for the cord blood collection program Schiff  
$300,000 California State Department of Justice Merced County California Methamptietamine Strategy (CALMS) Cardoza Boxer
$238,000 Cosumnes River College, Sacramento, CA for the GreenForce center, including outreach and recruitment of students for clean energy training Matsui  
$238,000 Legal Services of Northern California, Inc., Sacramento, CA, to provide free legal consultation for older Califomians   Feinstein
$214,000 Boys and Girls Club of Greater Sacramento, CA for an internet safety program for teenagers, which may include equipment Matsui Boxer
$200,000 California State Department of Justice California Gang Suppression Enforcement Teams Lewis, Jerry; McNerney  
$200,000 Sacramento Police Department Sacramento Youth Gang Intervention/Prevention Program Matsui  
$190,000 Roberts Family Development Center, Sacramento, CA for programs to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, particularly cancer, heart disease, and obesity Matsui  
$150,000 Sacramento County Sheriff In-Car Camera and Information Integration Project Matsui  
$150,000 CA State Dept of Justice, Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement Sacramento County Methamphetamine Enforcement Matsui  

Thumbnail image for DD45.jpgAssociated Press reported today (too late for praying) that on Monday an asteroid came within 48,000 miles of hitting Earth. The asteroid (dubbed DD45) is as big as the space rock that clobbered Siberia in 1908. Apparently scientists had been tracking it since late February and considered it no threat to our planet.

NASA's Near Earth Object Program tracks comets and asteroids whose orbits take them close to the Earth. The program's website provides a readable introduction to NEOs, as well as specific information about space junk that have hit the earth, came close in the past or are expected to come close in the future. It also has interactive 3-D graphics showing the trajectory of these things as they pass through the solar system. Take a look at the data and graphic on our recent guest, DD45

With Jesse Jackson looking on yesterday, Mayor Kevin Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg launched a new campaign to encourage local citizens to donate their time for the betterment of the community. Of course, volunteerism is nothing new; it's as old as the country. But how many people already volunteer?

Surprisingly (at least to me) the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts regular surveys to determine the extent and nature of non-paid work in the nation. Its latest study revealed that 61.8 million Americans (26.4 percent) volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2007 and September 2008. Continuing a trend, women -- regardless of education, age and other demographics -- volunteer more than men by 29.4 to 23.2 percent. Adults 35-44 continued to volunteer more than any other age group (31.3 percent). The dominant activity for volunteers is fundraising (or selling items to raise money), followed by tutoring or teaching.

The most recent BLS figures aren't broken down by geography, but older statistics for cities and states are available from the Corporation for National and Community Service. The group compiled BLS data for a three year period, 2005-2007, and found the average national volunteer rate was 27.2 percent per year. Average volunteer rates for states ranged from 18 percent to 44 percent during that time. California ranked 42nd with 24.3 percent. (Number one was Nebraska with 43.9 percent.) Among the largest 50 U.S. urban areas, the Sacramento region ranked 36th in the rate of volunteering (25.7 percent). (Minneapolis lead them all with 39.3 percent.)     

About Data Surfer

It's all about information -- statistics, documents and data of all types that help us understand the world, make informed decisions and monitor government. It's about empowering citizens with tools and sources so they can conduct their own investigative research. This blog is a place to discuss information that's available on the Internet. What's relevant, useful, valid and accurate -- and what's not.

We know the Sacramento region is home to knowledgeable people who use online information in their respective fields. We want to hear from you. Please tell us what you think of the data we use in stories and post on The Bee's website. And share tips about online resources you think are valuable to this blog's readers. Post comments on this blog or contact Pete Basofin directly at

June 2010

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