Thu, Aug

Time for Sunshine in Sacramento

LEGISLATIVE SECRETS - Would you believe that, after the recent scandals in Bell and elsewhere in California around illegal compensation and government secrecy, the California legislature is keeping the budgets of legislators and legislative committees secret?

Unbelievable, right?

But that's exactly what is going in Sacramento. Despite all the fuss over the past few years about transparency in government -- and considerable progress in many areas -- the California legislature is apparently still living in the pre-Watergate era.

When Assemblyman Anthony Portantino and a number of major news outlets, including the LA Times, made public records requests for the information, they were summarily denied. So now the media outlets have gone to court [link] to force the legislature to open up its records to the public.

The shield that the legislature is hiding behind -- ironically called the Legislative Open Records Act -- was passed in the post-Watergate era in response to public pressure, but it contains a boatload of loopholes that allow the legislature itself to decide what records to keep secret.

Attempts to close the loopholes with new legislation have failed, including a state constitutional amendment passed in 2004, which made access to government records a civil right, but specifically exempted the legislature. [link]

It is certainly neither wise policy nor good politics for the legislature to stonewall the public on its budget records.

Legislature arguably overstepped even the weak boundaries of the Open Records Act, and it is likely that a court will demand release of the records.

A more positive step would be for the legislature itself to open its records to the public without being forced to do so by the judiciary. But even that is probably too little, too late.

What the legislature ought to do at this point is draft a new "sunshine" law that will provide a reasonable vehicle for the release of public records while protecting the deliberative process of the body.

At this point, with public opinion of Sacramento in the toilet, there is very little to lose by letting the public witness the sausage-making for themselves.

There should be plenty of bipartisan support for this kind of new public records legislation, since the Republicans have pushed hard in the past for greater openness, and the Democrats have much to gain by championing reform. And it is vastly preferably to have this reform come through legislation rather than through a lengthy and expensive initiative process.

You might ask why we should focus on details like the Open Records Act when our state and nation are in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, with millions of Americans out of work.

The short answer is that many of our economic woes are fallout from political gridlock -- itself the result of a dysfunctional political system. The first step toward repairing the political system is to take an honest and open look at what is wrong. We can't do that unless we have the full story.

While the office budgets of legislators and committees may seem like a drop in the bucket in our overall fiscal plight, they actually play an outsized role in our system.

Even more than their personal salaries, lawmakers covet staff and resources that will give them more clout on the inside maneuvering for power.

If the public knows what kind of budgets the lawmakers are using to wield power, citizens can make more informed decisions not only about policy, but also about the effectiveness of their legislators.

The time has come for Sacramento to catch up to the twenty-first century -- or at least the second half of the twentieth century -- and pass meaningful Open Records legislation that includes their own budgets.

(Hoyt Hilsman is a journalist, screenwriter, critic and former candidate for Congress. He blogs at huffingtonpost.com where this column was first posted.) -cw

Tags: Sacramento, Bell, transparency, secret committees, Legislative Open Records Act, Watergate, post-Watergate, California, California Legislature

Vol 9 Issue 64
Pub: Aug 12, 2011