SACRAMENTO — Legislative leaders on Friday took a long-term step to end a controversy over access to documents, introducing a constitutional amendment to mandate that local governments comply with the California Public Records Act.
The proposed amendment also specifies that the state would not have to reimburse those governments for the cost of complying with the law, potentially saving the general fund millions of dollars a year. The Senate is expected to take up SCA3 next week.
The move by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, comes after Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown backtracked on a bill included in the budget package that was approved last week.
That bill would have made compliance with the records law optional for local governments, which led to a public outcry that the provision could allow governments to keep public information secret or not respond to requests for records.
The Assembly removed the contentious part of the legislation and re-voted on the bill Thursday, and the Senate is expected to do the same next week. Brown’s administration has indicated he will sign the revised bill.
Brown, a Democrat, had sought the changes to avoid a requirement that the state reimburse local governments for complying with requests under the California Public Records Act.
Leno said the constitutional amendment would permanently uphold the right of Californians to “inspect public records and attend public meetings.”
“The state should not have to provide a fiscal incentive to local governments so that they comply with these important transparency laws,” he said in a statement.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the underlying dispute was about who should pay for compliance with basic transparency laws. The constitutional amendment appears to resolve the issue “in the right way,” he said.
“Good government practices at the local level are the responsibility, politically and fiscally, of local governments,” Scheer said. “And the reality is it doesn’t cost very much, if anything, to abide by open government laws.”
Many government agencies already charge fees to produce documents in response to requests for information.
The amendment needs two-thirds support in both legislative chambers to pass. If approved, it would appear on the June 2014 ballot for voter ratification.
The measure would not affect lawmakers, who are subject to their own Legislative Open Records Act, a far more restrictive law that allows the Legislature to avoid releasing many documents.
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, criticized Democrats on the floor of the Legislature this week for “falling all over themselves” to support upholding the state’s open records law but not being transparent in their own operations.
“To truly support open, transparent government, you have to be willing to hold yourselves up to the same standards,” she said in a news release.
Republicans opposed both versions of the budget bill, which included a host of issues, some of which were not related to the state budget. The office of Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the constitutional amendment introduced Friday.
SCA3 is included in a “gut-and-amend” bill that formerly sought to lower the threshold for local parcel tax approval.