Dan Walters: California politicians manipulate our rights

dwalters@sacbee.comJune 21, 2013 

The seriocomedy over gutting the California Public Records Act continued Thursday as the politicians went into panic mode in the face of rapidly expanding criticism.

The Assembly voted to reverse what it had wrought just a few days earlier – rendering the CPRA toothless by making it optional for local governments to fully comply with document requests.

As they voted Thursday, Assembly members assumed that the Senate would not go along, as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg had declared a day earlier. But a couple of hours later, Steinberg reversed himself and in a joint statement with Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez said that the Senate would, after all, take up the revised bill.

Then Brown, who had implied Wednesday that he wanted to stick with the original bill, also flipped and joined the Legislature in calling for the CPRA to remain intact.

It's a "fine mess" worthy of a Laurel and Hardy movie – for those old enough to remember the comedic duo – and illustrates what happens when politicians play games and write legislation in the dark of night.

The machinations are rooted in a decades-long game of fiscal tag between state and local governments.

A section of the state constitution – enacted by voters in 1979 with the ardent support of Brown during his first governorship – requires the state to reimburse local governments for any costs the state imposes.

The locals try to maximize reimbursement claims, while the state tries to minimize outgo. Brown, notwithstanding his support for that 1979 ballot measure, has been particularly reluctant to pay up, and has repeatedly pushed legislation to erase some reimbursable mandates, such as fully complying with the CPRA.

Brown 2.0 is correct that the state shouldn't be on the hook for every local ministerial act, but the solution would be to change the constitutional mandate, not continue to play games.

Meanwhile, not only should the Legislature and Brown enact the revised bill, but in penance they should embrace a constitutional requirement that legislation be in print for at least 72 hours before enactment.

The media have waged this battle over the CRPA because it's a primary tool to investigate malfeasance. But reporters are by no means the only ones who use the law.

Gutting the CPRA, school reformers say, could make it difficult for parents to monitor how school districts implement Brown's new plan to improve the educations of poor and English- learner students.

Advocates for the elderly and other recipients of social services use it to find out how their clients are being treated. And so forth.

California's politicians have been playing games with one of the most fundamental rights any supposedly democratic government should protect. And we shouldn't tolerate it.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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