Budget trailer bill will kill rights

June 20, 2013

By Katy Grimes


A new budget trailer bill will gut the state Public Records Act at the local level. The Public Records Act provides Californians the ability to obtain documents about state and local government actions and hold government officials accountable.

What special interest group would have the chutzpah to push for a law to prevent members of the public from obtaining records from local governments?

Until June 12, 2013, California Assembly Bill 76 had been an empty shell for a “budget trailer bill” to be passed as a supplement to the 2013-2014 California state budget.

“Union fingerprints are all over Assembly Bill 76,” said Kevin Dayton, CEO of the Dayton Policy Institute and Labor Issues Solutions, LLC. “Many of the substantive policy changes in the bill are related to union objectives. These proposals have not been considered in public hearings and are too obscure and complicated to recognize unless you are already familiar with the related labor issues.”

Trailer bill process

The empty budget trailer bills, called “spot bills,” usually sit on a shelf until the last minute they are needed, and usually on the day the budget is due, June 15. They are not vetted and don’t go through the usual public legislative committee process. Legislators are asked to vote on these bills, often having just seen them for the first time.

While both parties have been guilty of abusing the trailer bill process, the Democratic Party has been completely controlling the Legislature since 1996.

Republicans used to sneak pork into trailers bills, but Democrats consistently use the trailer bill process to whittle away at Democracy.

The Department of Finance explains trailer bills: “There are generally budget changes proposed by the Governor or the Legislature which necessitate changes to existing law in order to implement the budget changes. If this is the case, separate bills are introduced to implement the change. These budget implementation bills are called “trailer bills” and are heard concurrently with the Budget Bill. By law, all proposed statutory changes necessary to implement the Governor’s Budget are due to the Legislature by February 1.”

But the process has been abused, with trailer bills being used as a conduit for individual pieces of legislation that did not make it into the budget, or for legislation that could not make it through the committee process.

Gutting the Public Records Act

“Legislative Democrats approved a trailer bill, Assembly Bill 76, as part of the majority vote budget plan enacted on Friday that suspends key provisions of the California Public Records Act relating to the ability of taxpayers to request government data and documents from local governments,” Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, explained in a press statement. “If Governor Brown signs the measure into law, the new provisions would impact cities, counties and special districts throughout the state.

“Gutting the Public Records Act is a dream come true for scandal-ridden local governments such as the city of Bell.  Under this law, bureaucrats would be able to shield corruption and scandal from taxpayers. Time and time again, the majority party has pulled out all the stops to block Californians from knowing how their government is operating.  California’s right to know should not be compromised because the majority party continues to overspend.”

If the Governor signs this measure into law, Logue plans to introduce legislation to restore the Public Records Act.

Specifically, AB 76 would:

* Make optional provisions in current law requiring local government officials to respond to requests from the public for public documents within 10 days of the request;

* Encourage local governments to adhere to the current provisions in law as “best practices,” but give them the ability to announce annually if they are suspending these requirements;

* Eliminate requirements that local government officials must help citizens complete their Public Records Act requests by disclosing what records are available to be requested; and

* Allow local governments to decide whether to provide an electronic copy of documents or provide paper documents.

California receives “F” grade for lack of transparency

Logue noted that California was recently given an “F” grade by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group for its lack of transparency in government spending, ranking 49th out of the 50 states.

He said that the budget trailer bill was one in a series of moves by Democrats to make government less open and less accessible to the people.  Earlier this year, Democrats passed dozens of empty so-called budget spot bills that paved the way for the type of backroom budget deals that included the provision to undermine the Public Records Act.  They also blocked Republican-authored legislation to make the legislative and budget processes more transparent.

“This latest scheme to undermine the Public Records Act will effectively shut the people out of their government if it becomes law,” said Logue.  “Access to public data and records is key to empowering the people to make their voices heard.  Every elected official — regardless of party — should embrace openness and transparency as our key governing principle.  Governor Brown should veto this offensive legislation and reaffirm the state’s commitment to an accessible and accountable government for the taxpayers it serves.”

The Assembly announced late Wednesday it intended to pass the bill on without the records act changes, but only after receiving blistering heat from Republicans and editorial boards around the state.

The Assembly will vote Thursday to annul AB 76 or SB 71, the budget bills which would  change the state records act.

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