The California state legislature, which has relatively free rein to conduct much of its business without being scrutinized by the public, may soon have to face rules demanding greater transparency. Unlike other agencies of the state government, the Associated Press notes, which fall under the narrow umbrella of the California Public Records Act, the legislature has been constrained by the more lenient Legislative Open Records Act, which permits many of its actions to be shrouded in secrecy.
Examples include the privacy of legislators’ daily calendars, which are only released with the legislators’ consent, and correspondence between legislators and lobbyists. Complaints against legislators and records of the legislative counsel are generally exempt from being made available to the public.
The office budgets of legislators were kept secret until 2011, when the Los Angeles Times and McClatchy Newspapers filed a lawsuit against the legislature demanding they release the records. The suit was filed in the fall of 2011; in December, Judge Timothy Frawley ruled against the legislature. The newspapers had requested access to the documents after an Assembly Member said party leaders were using the budgets for political patronage. The judge ruled that the State Assembly’s argument that the budgets fell under the rubric of “correspondence” or “preliminary drafts” was not credible as a reason to restrict their release.
Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen (R-Riverbank) told the Associated Press that she is presenting a proposal that would require bills to be made public at least three days before they are voted on–a distinct difference from some prior occurrences where public revelation occurred moment before the vote was taken. She even asserted that there had been an incident in which a bill was not revealed to the public until after the vote. In 2011, Olsen was one of the four GOP lawmakers who voluntarily revealed details of her office budget to the Associated Press.
Former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who presided over an era of storied corruption, had championed the stonewalling of information in 2010, saying legislators required privacy said “for candid, private discussions among and between colleagues.”
Olsen concluded, “When we don’t operate in transparent ways it leads to greater distrust in government, suspicion and greater apathy. Transparency shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”