Assembly passes bill to in favor of open public records

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) The state Assembly took steps Thursday to undo changes in a budget bill that could restrict access to public records held by local governments, but the fate of the fix-it legislation remains uncertain after the Senate declined to act.

The Assembly voted 52-25 after days of public criticism over the original measure, which was approved last week and sent to the governor. The original bill makes it optional for local governments and other agencies, such as water or school districts, to comply with the California Public Records Act. Reducing compliance from a mandate would mean the state would not have to reimburse the governments for their costs.

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 on ethics training for local government officials.

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 now heads to the Senate. Yet on Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, 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.

On Thursday, he softened that stand somewhat. He said he will say later in the day how the Senate will treat the Assembly-approved bill.

He favors a longer-term solution in the form of a constitutional amendment that would prevent the state from having to reimburse local governments for the costs of fulfilling public records requests. If the Legislature eventually does pass such an amendment, it would need to go before voters, presumably in 2014.

"I'm confident this will all work out," Steinberg said.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposed the Public Records Act change to save millions of dollars, although neither the governor's office nor the Legislature can say exactly how much money will be saved. 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.

Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said Thursday that his chamber will evaluate a constitutional amendment if one is passed by 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."


Associated Press writer Don Thompson contributed to this report.