State lawmakers, stung by criticism that their attempt to gut the California Public Records Act last week was about secrecy in government—not fiscal responsibility, as they claim—introduced a proposal that voters pass a constitutional amendment ensuring that local governments get stuck with the bill, not the state.
The Senate and Assembly passed a trailer bill to the budget, supported by Governor Jerry Brown, that would effectively suspended key portions of the act to save the state from having to reimburse local entities for giving the public access to records and help in obtaining them.
The state has been on the hook since a May 2011 decision (pdf) by the Commission on State Mandates (CSM). The commission is a quasi-judicial administrative body that interprets state law to decide if local agencies and school districts are entitled to reimbursements for state-mandated increased costs to their budgets. In the case of the Public Records Act, the answer was “yes.”
The act makes clear the right of people to have access to copies of state and local government documents. It also requires that state and local agencies have written guidelines for public access and to post these guidelines at their offices. Brown and state lawmakers say they have no quibble with that. They just don’t want the state to have to pay for it.
The fear among good government folk is that without state funding, local entities, especially those that are strapped for cash, won’t provide much, if any, access to a key element of government transparency and accountability.
News of the stealth legislation surfacing at the tail end of the budget process generated a firestorm of protest from media outlets across the state and a quick reversal by Assembly leader John A. Pérez. But Senate leader Darrell Steinberg was reluctant to join him.
On Friday, Steinberg and Senator Mark Leno, both Democrats, introduced legislation that would let voters decide the issue next June, and on Monday legislation was amended to restore the status quo and sent to the governor.
Critics who find California’s state government somewhat lacking in transparency and not getting any better were skeptical of the motive behind the trailer bill. But Governor Brown could make a strong argument that the dispute is not about public access to records.
He and many state lawmakers oppose most reimbursements for state mandates, and the state has gone out of its way not to make many since 2002, according to Jim Miller at the Riverside Press-Enterprise. It can take up to six years for the State Mandate Commission to clear a claim and about a third of them are rejected.
Cities and counties say they are owed $1.8 billion for unpaid mandates, including those for public record access, and the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office agrees.
“They are legal obligations and eventually the state will have to pay them,” Marianne O’Malley of the Analyst’s Office told the Press-Enterprise.