By most accounts, the state budget for the coming fiscal year is full of positives, including a change in school funding that will bring more money to the San Francisco Unified School District. However, sneaked into the budget was an item that was purportedly to save money for the state, but that would have severely weakened the law that allows for access to public records and gives the people the right to know what government agencies are up to.
A late addition to the massive state budget was Assembly Bill 76, which would end the state's reimbursement to local governments for their services related to complying with the California Public Records Act.
Without the reimbursement, local agencies — such as cities, counties, school districts and other governing bodies — would be given options about complying with portions of the law, including responding within 10 days of a request and making a determination if all or just part of a records request is being denied. Agencies also could be let off the hook for giving a legal reason why a records request is being denied.
The California Public Records Act is a powerful tool for anyone — be it a journalist, business person or regular citizen — to be able to access records that can shine a light into the inner workings of government. Such records requests can illuminate many things, including spending, that can hold officials responsible for their actions.
San Francisco has its own public-records law for city and county agencies, and any weakening of the rules would likely not affect The City directly. But other agencies in The City and the surrounding counties could eventually start opting out of the rigorous processes the law implements if they stop getting state funds.
Many agencies around the state told The Sacramento Bee that they would continue to comply with the records act even with the watered-down language in the bill about providing records. But the bill opened up a future in which government agencies could slowly start choking off access to records.
In order to kill this egregious part of the budget, Gov. Jerry Brown would have to veto the entire budget, which is unlikely to happen. But the weakening of the records law in the long run is a blow to democracy in this state, and it needs to be undone in an expedited manner by state lawmakers.
Promises by government agencies about access to public records are not enough. The people need the records act to have teeth to force compliance. The item attached to the budget shows that as written, the laws could be altered to allow for agencies and officials to hide embarrassing documents and not even have to explain why they are doing so.
State lawmakers, battered by the reaction to the bill, seem to have acknowledged that they are turning the California Public Records Act into the California Semi-Public Records Act — and that it is unacceptable to allow this to move forward. Assembly Speaker John A. Perez said in a statement Wednesday that the Assembly today will move to undo the changes, leaving the California Public Records Act fully intact.
Wednesday evening, lawmakers in the state Senate announced that they will also undo the changes attached to the budget, but that they will also go further by proposing a constitutional amendment that would permanently restore state funding mandates.
It took an outcry, but lawmakers have acknowledged the need for open public records, and the voters should also cement that important right into the state Constitution.