June 15, 2013

CA budget plan drops court records fee

Open government advocates are celebrating part of California's budget, but they are lamenting another.

Open government advocates are celebrating part of California's budget, but they are lamenting another.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to allow courts to charge a search fee for access to public records fell short of making it into the spending plan. But his move to suspend a state mandate that requires local governments to follow the Public Records Act is included.

The court fee proposal would have attempted to boost court revenues by placing a $10 price tag on any public records search requested by businesses, journalists and other members of the public. Parties involved in the case would have been the only group exempt from the fee.

Opponents said the fees would reduce government transparency and discourage citizens and journalists from searching public records.

The Senate included the $10 fee in its version of the budget, but created an exemption for the press, said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. The two-house budget conference committee, however, chose the Assembly's version of the issue, which rejected the fee.

"It is gratifying to see that lawmakers recognized what an absolute barrier these increases would have presented for informed reporting about the judicial system, and crime and business reporting for that matter," said Terry Francke, general counsel at Californians Aware, a nonprofit open government advocacy group.

Francke, however, said his organization remains "very much concerned" about the suspension of state mandates still included in the budget.

By suspending reimbursement to local agencies for complying with a variety of state laws, legislators and Brown hope to save the state millions of dollars. But critics say this suspension could encourage local agencies to stop complying with public access laws, such as the Public Records Act, which guarantees access to public records.

Francke said this could imperil media and public access to public information.

"If (local agencies) do indeed stop performing those actions, there is nothing the state can do to remedy it," Francke said.

Administration officials contend that local governments will continue to comply with the law.

Call Annalise Mantz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5545.

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