California Lawmakers Bend to Outcry

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - In a change of heart over legislation California passed last week, lawmakers promised they would not suspend parts of the state's Public Records Act.
     Legislators faced a firestorm of controversy when media outlets reported that Democrats had gutted local government compliance requirements from the disclosure law, in trailer bills surreptitiously tacked onto the 2013-2014 state budget. Republicans, badly outnumbered in the Legislature, all voted against the entire budget package.
     The trailer bills removed the legal obligations that county, city, educational and special district agencies face on public requests for records. The clearance is conditioned on the agencies stating - publicly and annually - that they do not intend to comply with the requirements of the Public Records Act.
     Both the Assembly version and SB 71 noted that the state constitution requires justifying any limits to public access "with findings demonstrating the interest protected by the limitation and the need for protecting that interest."
     In this case, lawmakers claimed the justification comes in the form of saving money. Public Records Act provisions signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan after voters passed Proposition 59 in 1968 - and amendments made by Prop. 4 in 1979 - allow cash-strapped local governments to demand reimbursement from the state for costs associated with transparency.
     But how much money - if any - the state would have saved by suspending mandatory Public Records Act requirements remains unclear. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimated the savings at "tens of millions of dollars" annually -chump change in the scope of California's $96.3 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year.
     Caving to public pressure, the Assembly voted Thursday to suspend its portion of the legislation. Despite initially saying he would only support a constitutional amendment to fix the problem, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said his wing of the statehouse will take up the issue next week.
     "We agree there needs to be both an immediate fix to ensure local entities comply with the California Public Records Act and a long-term solution so the California Public Records Act is not considered a reimbursable mandate," Steinberg said in a statement.
     Gov. Brown also pushed for a constitutional fix to spare California from having to reimburse local governments for PRA requests.
     "We all agree that Californians have a right to know and should continue to have prompt access to public records and I support enshrining these protections in California's constitution," Brown said in a statement Wednesday.
     Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has been tasked with proposing the amendment. His plan exempts the state from reimbursing local governments for three aspects of the PRA: assistance in seeking documents, notification requirements and the electronic release of requested records.
     Meanwhile, open government advocates cheered lawmakers' retreat. Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said it was "a great day for the Legislature to establish its commitment to transparent government."
     The California Newspaper Publishers Association - along with Courthouse News Service and open-government groups - has also been at odds with lawmakers this year over a scheme to charge $10 per file to look at public court records. A joint budget conference committee killed that plan earlier this month.
     Restoration of the Public Records Act also comes as a relief to Donna Frye, president of open-government watchdog group CalAware.
     "I hope they now realize that the public really does care about the Public Records Act," Frye said in an interview with KMJ radio in Fresno, Calif. "I also want to believe that our state officials saw the light."