SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers who already sent an open records proposal to Gov. Jerry Brown are taking steps to undo it.
The California Senate’s top Democrat said Thursday that his chamber will take up legislation to cancel changes in a budget bill that could restrict access to public records held by local governments.
The shift in the Senate’s position came after the Assembly approved a bill reversing legislation awaiting the governor that would make it optional for local governments and other agencies, such as water or school districts, to comply with the California Public Records Act.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in at a statement after the Assembly’s vote that both chambers see a need for a short-term fix to ensure public records remain accessible.
Making compliance with some public records rules optional would have meant that the state would not have to reimburse local governments for their costs. The Senate is seeking a constitutional amendment requiring local agencies to fulfill records requests without state reimbursement.
“As the Senate advances its proposed constitutional amendment, the Assembly will work with them throughout its process to give voters the chance to make clear that good government shouldn’t come with an extra price tag,” said Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez in a statement.
The legislation passed Thursday in the Assembly, known as SB71, includes all the budget-related items in the original bill but withdraws the language giving local governments the option to comply with records requests. It also deletes a section related to ethics mandates and compensation for local officials.
It passed the Assembly on a vote of 52-25.
Republicans opposed the bill because of the other items it contains but said they would have supported a single-issue bill preserving the public records requirement. They criticized Democrats for making last-minute changes to bills, particularly budget measures, and then bringing to them to a swift vote on the Assembly floor.
“We all talk about transparency and sunshine, but when you guys have the opportunity, you cram stuff into these budget bills and then you put them on the floor and there’s language in there that no one has had the opportunity to review or read,” said Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield.
SB71 awaits consideration in the Senate. On Wednesday, Steinberg had said he had no plans to take up the measure unless there is evidence in the future that a city or county is not complying with the open records law. In Thursday’s statement, he reversed that stand.
“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 and Perez said.
The statement did not say when the Senate will take up the Assembly-approved bill.
Brown proposed the Public Records Act change to save what the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates could cost tens of millions of dollars. He said in a statement Wednesday that he supports a constitutional amendment clarifying public records rules and ensuring access.
On Thursday, the governor avoided the issue. After speaking to a convention of unionized nurses in San Francisco, the Democratic governor was asked whether he would veto the bill already on his desk, AB76, but refused to answer.
Perez, D-Los Angeles, said during Thursday’s floor debate that his chamber will evaluate a constitutional amendment after one passes the Senate, but that an interim step is needed before such a change could go before voters next year.
“That is the long-term approach,” Perez said. “What is important for us is to do the immediate fix so that there is no gap in access to public records and then to evaluate the Senate’s constitutional amendment.”