Our View: Trailer bill reform is long overdue

ModestoJune 23, 2013 

Following a statewide outcry, it now appears the Assembly will redo Assembly Bill 76 so that local governments won't have the option of disregarding open records laws. That's a good step. Senate leaders want to enshrine the Public Records Act in the state constitution. That's also a good step. Yet these proposals don't deal with the larger problem of murky budget trailer bills loaded with troublesome provisions.

Several of these provisions in AB 76 have been highlighted by Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully, who fears they will "send California back to the Dark Ages in regards to definitions, standards and arrest practices for domestic violence." The 120-age bill would change the mandatory "shall" to the permissive "may" in several sections of the Penal Code related to domestic violence. That, Scully claims, would relieve law enforcement agencies of important obligations intended to better protect battered women and children.

For example, under current law police departments are required to maintain a record of all domestic violence protection orders. The amendments in this bill would make such record keeping discretionary. Current law also requires law enforcement agencies to adopt standards for how officers should respond to domestic violence calls and to keep records of the number of domestic violence complaints filed. Under AB 76, those mandatory practices would be left to the discretion of police agencies.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the governor's Department of Finance, says the bill puts into law what has been standard practice for 20 years, ever since the state temporarily suspended mandates on domestic violence record keeping. That suspension didn't prevent local law enforcement from continuing to keep domestic violence records, and AB 76 wouldn't either, said Palmer.

One thing it would do, however, is take the state off the hook financially for reimbursing local agencies for such record keeping.

The Brown administration may be correct in claiming that AB 76 will have no substantive impact on domestic violence. But by jamming so many code changes into a trailer bill read and passed on the day before the budget deadline, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic leaders only have themselves to blame for the backlash.

When it was introduced in January, Assembly Bill 76 was less than a page long, just two lines in fact. On June 12, 120 pages of amendments were added affecting more than 100 state laws, spread across 14 code sections. Its provisions affect the Penal Code, Education Code, Military and Veterans Code, Water Code and more. Nonetheless, legislators in both houses approved the bill, most without reading it, on Friday.

California needs many kinds of reform — including a tax overhaul, restrictions on initiatives and greater campaign spending transparency. But it also needs trailer bill reform. Public trust in government is eroded when laws this complex and sweeping are enacted with so little review and scrutiny. They are power grabs, plain and simple, that show complete disrespect for the public's right to know how their government is being run.

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