SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate leaders appeared Wednesday to reject an Assembly proposal to restore key provisions of the California Public Records Act, instead saying that the issue should go before voters as a constitutional amendment next year.
The tussle over how to ensure public access to local government records, as well as who should pay for those requirements, came after a barrage of criticism from open-government activists, who said that proposed changes in a state budget bill would essentially gut the law.
Brown proposed the changes in his January budget plan as a way to save the state money. They make it optional for local governments to comply with several key provisions of the act.
"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," the Democratic governor said in a one-line statement. His office declined further comment.
At issue is Assembly Bill 76, a budget bill on Brown's desk that proposes making key provisions of the state's Public Records Act optional for local governments.
Amid criticism from the media and open-government advocates, the Assembly announced plans to send a replacement for the measure today that does not contain the records act changes. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez noted in a statement that his house did not include the changes in its initial version of the budget.
"To be clear, this means that the California Public Records Act will remain intact without any changes as part of the budget consistent with the Assembly's original action," he said.
An hour after Pérez's announcement, Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said that the Senate would not move the replacement bill until "we get word from one public entity that they are not complying" with best practices under the open records act.
Instead, he said, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, will introduce a constitutional amendment today that would require local governments to abide by all provisions of the act, but ensure that the state doesn't have to foot the bill. The Senate may vote next week on the constitutional amendment, which would put the matter before voters in 2014.
Pérez's office did not return calls seeking comments about the Senate's plans.
"The amendment will clarify that this controversy was never about weakening the public records act," Steinberg said. "It instead is about whether state taxpayers pay the bill for what cities and counties should be doing on their own." Newspaper editorials across the state call have called on Brown to veto the measure now on his desk.
"We're delighted by the Assembly's proposal, but we're a little disappointed that the Senate will not put it to a vote," said Jim Ewert, general counsel at the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "We applaud Sen. Leno for proposing a constitutional amendment, which we think is the ultimate solution. We will do everything we can to support that process."
While open-records advocates urge Brown to veto the records act changes, crime victim advocates are raising objections to language in the same bill that would relax requirements for how local agencies handle domestic violence cases.
The language, included in a package of budget bills that Brown is expected to sign this month, would make optional an existing law requiring local agencies to implement written policies encouraging the arrest of domestic violence offenders if there is probable cause that a crime has been committed.