A growing furor over proposed changes to the California Public Records Act is threatening to undo this month’s relatively smooth budget negotiations.
Responding to criticism that the changes would substantially weaken California’s open records laws, Assembly Speaker John Perez announced the lower chamber would vote Thursday morning on a measure identical to the bill it passed last week, but not including the section dealing with open records. “To be clear, this means that the California Public Records Act will remain intact without any changes as part of the budget – consistent with the Assembly’s original action,” Pérez said in a statement.
But the Senate isn’t budging. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says the Senate won’t vote on that new bill unless he sees evidence local governments are opting out of the public records requirements. Steinberg says the issue isn’t public records. It’s the fact the state is constitutionally required to pay for those local actions. “Unless the local governments are violating the law,” he told reporters, the state should not be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars to pay them for what they should be doing.”
What’s this all about? As we've been reporting today, the proposed Public Records Act changes were included in one of the so-called trailer bills that lawmakers passed alongside the state budget last week. The bill removed the mandatory requirement that local governments respond to requests for documents within 10 days, provide electronic versions of records when available, and provide assistance to records-seekers who aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. (For instance, if your town has an Excel spreadsheet of employee salaries that's subject to disclosure and you ask for that information, the town is obligated to provide it to you.) Such compliance under the bill would have been optional, redefined as "best practices."
After the bill was signed, various mayors, including San Francisco's Ed Lee, said local governments would continue to comply with the law. But First Amendment and open government advocates have been livid, and newspapers published editorials opposing the change, saying the law had been eviscerated. Journalists who rely on the law as an investigatory tool have also been highly critical .
Steinberg says the Senate will also vote soon on a constitutional amendment requiring local governments to foot the bill for public records responses, instead of passing the cost along to the state. California’s constitution requires the state to pay for mandates it imposes on local governments.