On its Way to Passing a Budget, Legislature “Guts” Key Open-Government Law

Monday, June 17, 2013

California lawmakers passed a $96.3 billion state budget Friday along party lines after reaching accord with Governor Jerry Brown on many of the major issues, limiting the likelihood of gubernatorial vetoes. 

But the First Amendment Coalition is strongly recommending that the governor weigh in on one last-minute amendment to a budget trailer bill that it says “will gut key transparency safeguards in California’s most important open-government law.”

Changes to Senate Bill 71 in the waning days of budget negotiations caught many lawmakers and observers by surprise, prompting Peter Scheer at the coalition to call it a “stealth” attack on the California Public Records Act. California Newspaper Publisher's Association general counsel Jim Ewert said, “This is the worst assault on the public's right to know I have seen in my 18 years of doing this.”

The legislation changes existing law to give local and state agencies the power to restrict public data to electronic formats, like pdf files (rather than spreadsheets or cvs files), which cannot be used in databases that are conducive to analysis. Local governments would also be allowed to deny written requests for public records without giving a reason, or, if the mood strikes them, not to respond at all.

The legal change would save the state some money, because it would no longer have to reimburse local jurisdictions for the mandated public service.

Governor Brown proposed milder versions of some of the changes a while back but, according to the San Jose Mercury News, a compromise suggested by the Legislative Analysts Office was adopted. Brown has two weeks to sign the package of legislation and can veto any items in it he doesn’t like.

The Los Angeles Times cited assurances from supporters of the legislation who claimed that it wouldn’t change anything. League of California Cities Executive Director Chris McKenzie told the newspaper that he thought local governments would continue to provide the same access to documents.    

But Ewert of the publishers association pointed out that the law wouldn’t have been passed in the first place if that was the case. And the claim by the bill’s supporters that it would save money was questioned by some.

“It's not about saving money—it’s all about curtailing an open, transparent government that can be held accountable,” state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) told the Mercury News.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Public Records Law “Eviscerated” in Budget Bill, Critics Charge (by Thomas Peele and Josh Richman, San Jose Mercury News)

California Public Record Act Threatened by Stealth Amendments (by Peter Scheer, First Amendment Coalition)

Proposed Budget Would Weaken California's Public Records Laws (by Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times)

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