Update: The situation is developing rapidly in Sacramento. In response to widespread opposition, Assembly Speaker John Perez says the legislature will vote on another budget trailer bill that does not gut CPRA. According to the Sacramento Bee, if that passes, Gov. Jerry Brown will have a choice between the two bills. So, keep writing Brown to tell him not to sign the anti-transparency measures.

Californians are on the verge of losing crucial tools for ensuring transparency and accountability in local government, unless Governor Jerry Brown uses his veto pen to strike out the section of the state budget that amends the California Public Records Act (CPRA).

Late on Friday, California lawmakers passed the 2013-2014 state budget. Buried within the budget package was a measure that would make many key requirements for handling public information merely optional for local governments.

For journalists, advocacy groups and members of the public, CPRA serves as the primary tool for wrenching information from the government. But, if the budget package is signed into law, many of the state’s public records safeguards would no longer have the force of law and instead become “best practices.” If a city, county, school board, special taxation district, or other local agency decides it doesn’t want follow the recommended policies, it only has to announce it orally—not in writing—at a meeting once a year.

In fact, agencies wouldn’t even have to declare whether they intend to obey CPRA until January, creating a six-month window where members of the public won’t know what their rights are. With individual agencies—from the largest cities to the smallest water boards—able to set their own records processes, the state will become a complicated patchwork of inconsistent policies. There will be little incentive for governments to be open about the process itself, let alone the records themselves.

Among the public-records provisions that will no longer be mandated:

- The requirements that an agency respond to a records request within 10 days with a determination of whether documents will be made available.

- The requirement that agencies notify the requester when and why it decides to withhold records.  

- The requirement that agencies help members of public identify which records would cover the information they’re seeking.

- The requirement that records which exist in electronic form be provided in that format upon request.

This measure would directly hinder EFF’s work in California. CPRA is the primary tool we’re using in California to investigate law-enforcement surveillance programs that encroach on privacy, including drones and license-plate readers. Investigative journalism will also take a hit, with reporters losing the ability to quickly and efficiently obtain records on government spending. Members of the public lose out as well—and not just Californians, but groups outside of the state (such as Muckrock) who want to investigate public programs state-by-state.

While some politicians claimed that these measures would save tax dollars, the legislature could only provide vague assumptions as to the amount. These estimates did not include how much money is saved by watchdogs who uncover wasteful spending through public-records request. Meanwhile, the state’s revenues exceeded expectations by $4.5 billion.

When he was running for office, Brown promised a budget that is “transparent and honest.”

“I will level with the people and set forth a budget that employs no gimmicks—no phony cuts that never materialize and no illusory revenues that never arrive,” Brown wrote in a policy paper in 2010.

Yet, the amendments contained in the budget represents exactly the type of legislation he railed against. The language weakening CPRA received little public debate and was passed at the 11th hour on a Friday. Had it been discussed in broad daylight, the majority of Californians—who have long embraced robust transparency measures—would not have supported it.

Brown must veto this measure. If you value accountability, take a moment to tell the governor to zero out the secrecy loophole in his budget.

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