SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A letter written by a lobbyist to a lawmaker; an e-mail pitch by a campaign donor; memos sent by party leaders directing legislators how to vote on a bill.
Those are just a few examples of documents that would shed light on how the California Legislature conducts the public’s business. But California lawmakers, like their counterparts in Congress and several other states, keep those and other types of correspondence secret under a special law covering legislative records.
California is one of at least six states in which legislatures require less transparency for themselves than is required for governors, state agencies and local government bodies, according to a review by The Associated Press.
Legislatures in Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma similarly exempt themselves.
“There’s way too much that’s being hidden from public review,” said David Cuillier, chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.
“We need to know who were the movers and shakers behind the scene that caused a certain provision to be included in a bill,” said Cuillier, who also is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. “What special interests are trying to create laws, maybe, at the expense of the rest of us?”
The California Legislature adopted its own rules for what information it would share with the public more than three decades ago, carving out a host of exemptions that make it difficult for the public to know who is influencing lawmakers’ votes.
Other state agencies are covered by the California Public Records Act, which requires far more openness.
Likewise, budget negotiations between California’s legislative leadership and the governor are held behind closed doors, as are party caucus meetings during which members twist arms for votes and air their views about pending bills or gubernatorial nominations. The issues often are all but decided by the time they hit the floors of the Assembly and Senate for final votes.
In other states where legislatures abide by state open records and meeting laws, lawmakers also have created numerous exemptions for themselves, according to an analysis by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that advocates for reporters’ rights and monitors legislative efforts that affect the public’s right to know.
For example, legislative documents in Illinois that contain opinions are considered confidential. Mississippi law gives the Legislature the right to “regulate public access to its records.”
In Massachusetts, the House and Senate can hold closed-door meetings of the entire chamber without any member of the public or press present.
“When you have the power to make the law however you want, you’re going to exempt yourself a lot,” Cuillier said.
In California, questions about how often lawmakers interact with lobbyists, and how those interactions influence voting, arose last year after a Republican lawmaker was caught on tape bragging about sexual exploits with female lobbyists. One of those lobbyists had business before the committee on which former Assemblyman Mike Duvall served.
Efforts to learn how much time Duvall spent with lobbyists were thwarted. State lawmakers said the Legislative Open Records Act shields that kind of information from public view.
Written by state lawmakers in 1975, the act lists more than a dozen exemptions from public disclosure. They include communications from private citizens to lawmakers, correspondence by lawmakers and their staff, any document in the custody of party caucuses and detailed phone records.
Drafts, notes and legislative memoranda, records pertaining to lawsuits, personnel and medical files also are considered confidential.
The Legislature gives itself broad discretion to deny access to information, even related to questions about how lawmakers spend taxpayer money. Earlier this year, the Senate and Assembly denied requests by the AP for information about lawmakers’ destinations when they billed taxpayers more than $2 million over a 2 1/2-year period for airfare. The chambers also refused to provide copies of lawmakers’ daily schedules, which would show when they met with lobbyists, donors and others seeking influence over bills.
One state lawmaker says it’s time to review the Legislature’s policies on releasing records and spending.
Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, has introduced a bill that would restrict gift-giving to legislators from firms that hire lobbyists. It would focus on the most egregious gifts such as spa treatments, tickets to sporting events and rounds of golf.
He said the Legislature should generally release information when it can do so safely. Details about where lawmakers flew, for example, should be made public afterward when there is no security risk, he said. Lawmakers also should release portions of their daily schedules, he said, with provisions to shield whistleblowers and others who risk retaliation by talking to legislators.
Blakeslee said lawmakers should avoid carving out exemptions for themselves as they demand that other state and local governments open their records.
“I’ve always been of the opinion the Legislature should be willing to live by the laws it imposes on others,” he said.
Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the public has enough information to determine how lawmakers conduct their business, noting committee hearings and floor sessions are broadcast on television and the Internet. He said information such as letters to lawmakers and closed-door caucus meetings are private because they are essential to internal deliberations.
“We have 120 people, and in order to do the business of the people, there has to be some room for candid, private discussions among and between colleagues,” Steinberg said. “And yet everything that counts, in terms of votes, our records, information relating to campaigns and campaign finance, all of that is public and readily accessible.”
The state Senate created a committee this year to oversee how state and local government agencies were adhering to open records laws, but there are no plans to review the Legislative Open Records Act.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, has taken small steps to improve transparency in his chamber, barring lawmakers from texting with lobbyists on the Assembly floor, for example. The Assembly also has begun webcasting budget hearings and releasing legislative pay records in electronic format.
In a statement to the AP, Perez said he would review the Legislative Open Records Act and “other options for increasing transparency in the Legislature.” But for now, information such as lawmakers’ travel records and policy pitches by lobbyists will remain confidential in the Legislature even as they are made public elsewhere in state government.
As agencies develop regulations, for example, they are required to disclose comments sent to them, including those of lobbyists and special interest groups that have a stake in the outcome. The governor’s cabinet officials must disclose their travel itineraries so the public can see where state employees are traveling on taxpayer money.
Members of state boards debating regulations are required to announce if they met with lobbyists about the issue before casting a vote.
“Legislatures always recognize the need for citizens to have information to make decisions at the ballot box and they always think the executive branch should turn over stuff,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “They are less convinced it’s as important for them to do the same.”
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