California voters could force more sunlight on public records
From CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Alexei Koseff:
Californians have a legal right to “information concerning the conduct of the people’s business,” but actually getting those public records is easier said than done.
In the past few months alone, a former employee of the San Jose mayor’s office sued the city for “perpetually extending its own deadline” for responding to records requests, while Mendocino County, facing the threat of litigation, repealed an ordinance to charge as much as $150 per hour to locate, review and redact documents.
These “loopholes” have prompted a new initiative that proponents say would give the law much-needed teeth and dramatically overhaul access to public information in California. It was filed Wednesday by Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group heavily involved in legislative and political fights over issues such as insurance rates, medical malpractice and oil drilling.
“The initiative is essential to make sure that the promise under the constitution to access public records means something,” said Jerry Flanagan, the organization’s litigation director.
Flanagan said endless delays and overly broad exemptions have made California’s public records laws “largely an empty promise” and the Legislature is uninterested in fixing that. A bill last year that would have established a standard two-year retention period for records across state government passed the Assembly unanimously — then was quietly killed in the Senate.
The proposed initiative would require agencies to hold onto records for a minimum of five years and fulfill requests within 30 days, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. It would also extend public access to records from private contractors who do government work, limit the use of attorney-client privilege and deliberative process exemptions to deny the release of documents and communications, and make public investigations into alleged misconduct by legislators.
New disclosures would extend beyond public records. The measure would require lawmakers to publish on their websites a schedule of meetings with lobbyists, fundraisers and public events they attend.
As first reported by Politico, Consumer Watchdog said it is setting aside $5 million to qualify the initiative for the November 2024 ballot, which the organization expects will be far more challenging and expensive than passing it. Once the attorney general prepares a title and summary, proponents will have six months to collect at least 546,651 valid signatures from California voters.
Flanagan said they do not anticipate a well-funded and organized opposition to the measure, even though it would demand greater transparency not just from state government and elected officials but also those who do business with them.
“If we don’t take on the pieces that we’re taking on, it would be a Pyrrhic victory,” Flanagan said.
More for voters in 2024? Another potential measure was filed Wednesday — this one by a coalition of community, environmental justice and public health groups to counter an oil industry referendum already on the November 2024 ballot.
The referendum seeks to permanently block a 2022 law that bans new oil wells within 3,200 feet of homes, hospitals, schools and other sensitive places. The proposed initiative would effectively put the law back in place.
- Martha Dina Argüello, Physicians for Social Responsibility L.A. executive director, to CalMatters: “Given that the Legislature has already made a clear choice in support of the setbacks, and the oil industry (was)… able to confuse the issue, we wanted to give California voters a crystal clear choice.”
But the competing measures on the same ballot may get confusing: If the initiative gets more votes than the number of votes to overturn the law, it would take effect. If voters uphold the law and the initiative still gets more votes, it would supersede the law.
CalMatters events: CalMatters is hosting more public events this year. The next one, on Aug. 15, focuses on whether the electric vehicle transformation can help bridge California’s economic divide. Sign up here to attend at our Sacramento office or online. The one after that is scheduled for Sept. 19, on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s push for rehabilitation over incarceration. Register here.
CalMatters’ new leader: After eight years, CalMatters has a new editor in chief — Kristen Go — and she spoke this week to Capitol Weekly about her vision, priorities and nonprofit news. Read more about her career from our engagement team.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 Local officials want a say
Speaking of lobbying at the Legislature, CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal and data reporter Jeremia Kimelman take a deep dive into lobbying — not by special interests or industry groups, but by California cities, counties and other local agencies.
If that sounds odd, know that it’s not uncommon: According to a CalMatters analysis, local governments, water districts and transit agencies have spent nearly $24 million on lobbying this year — about 10% of the nearly $233 million total.
Though legislators are already supposed to advocate on behalf of their local governments’ best interests, they still lobby because lawmakers might have multiple cities in their district, or a city might be split among several districts. Plus, they get results: According to a national study, cities that lobby receive between 7% and 9% more per person in state funding than those that don’t. In 2022-23, California spent about 80% of its budget on local assistance.
So what do local governments and agencies spend taxpayers’ money lobbying for? Mostly money. This session, cities asked for millions from the state budget for homelessness programs, and public transit agencies asked for extra cash to cover operating costs. Other times they lobby for certain policies, such as bills related to crime, land use, housing or water.
- Richard Miadich, chairperson of the Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces campaign finance and lobbying laws: “These local governments feel compelled to do it because of the complexity of the issues that are being considered by the state Legislature.… I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with what they’re doing. I think as long as they’re being transparent about it and being accurate in what they’re doing … that is the most important thing from our standpoint.”
But the process isn’t always transparent. Cities aren’t required to disclose why they’re lobbying on a bill or what position they’re taking. In some instances, local agencies lobby for policies that seem outside their purview. (For example, the Central Delta Water Agency, lobbied for bills related to a hospital loan fund, juvenile court hearings and sexually violent predators.) Some cities were also found lobbying for bills that were either from past sessions or are nonexistent this session.
For more about local lobbying, including a rundown of some of the more curious issues (youth tackle football bill, anyone?) read the story by Sameea and Jeremia.
2 How much are you willing to borrow?
With 70% of Californians surveyed citing homelessness as a big problem in their region, many residents are eager for solutions. But two bond proposals slated for the March ballot may test how much Californians are willing to pay, by charging billions to the state’s credit card.
As CalMatters’ housing reporter Ben Christopher explains, one proposed bond would fund some of the state’s top affordable housing programs. At $10 billion, it would be the largest housing-related IOU that California has issued in decades.
The other is a Gov. Gavin Newsom-backed $4.68 billion bond to build housing and expand psychiatric and substance abuse treatment for unhoused residents. If passed, it would be the largest expansion of behavioral health funding in the state, according to the governor’s office.
But before they land on the ballot, the proposals will have to win approval from both the Legislature and the governor. Some housing advocates say they see a “real opportunity” for the Legislature to connect the two.
- Alex Visotzky, senior California policy fellow at the National Alliance to End Homelessness: “If you have temporary shelter beds and services for an individual suffering from mental health or substance abuse disorder but no affordable housing, that person is likely going to return to homelessness. Conversely if you have affordable housing, but no services available, then that individual is going to struggle to maintain their housing.”
Voters will then have to decide if they can stomach borrowing money not just for one or both proposals, but for as many as eight other state bond measures in 2024, totaling at least $80 billion. These bonds seek funding for schools, flood protection and combating the fentanyl crisis.
To reach the ballot, bond proposals aiming for March need to clear the Legislature by Sept.14 and those for November 2024 by March 15.
And there’s another even bigger affordable housing bond measure in November 2024 — as much as $20 billion — but only for voters in the nine counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay.
3 State minimum wage going up
California workers making minimum wage will get a 50-cent raise on Jan. 1, to $16 an hour.
That word came very quietly this week in a letter from the state Department of Finance to Gov. Newsom and legislative leaders, and it’s because inflation has been so high.
Under state law, the state finance director each year must determine if the minimum wage should be adjusted for inflation by Aug. 1. Using federal data showing that the consumer price index jumped 6.2% in the 12 months that ended June 30, the department determined that the minimum wage should increase by 3.5%, from the current $15.50.
- Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, former legislator and current California Labor Federation executive officer, in a tweet: “Using an automatic inflation escalator was one of the best things we did when we initially set the path to a $15 minimum wage in law.”
And in November 2024, voters will decide if they want to go even further and raise the state minimum wage to $18.
The announcement comes as many labor groups are pushing for higher wages as the cost of living continues to rise in California, especially housing. Health care workers and tourism workers in Los Angeles, for example, are seeking $25 hourly wages.
Though inflation rates do play some part, calculating what is considered a livable wage in the state is complex. In June, United Ways of California released its latest living wage calculator, which goes beyond federal poverty guidelines to estimate how much households in different regions of California must earn to afford the basic necessities.
4 Let’s get ready to rumble
Mark your calendars: The Newsom-DeSantis debate is finally on, apparently.
Date: Nov. 8 or 10. Place: Nevada, Georgia or North Carolina. Moderator: Sean Hannity of Fox News.
Gavin, California’s Democratic governor who is definitely not running for president (or so he says), and Ron, Florida’s Republican governor who definitely is, have been jabbing each other on Twitter and over the airwaves for months over migrants, schools, culture wars and much else.
In June, in his first interview with Fox News in 13 years, Newsom jumped at the chance to take on DeSantis in person. When Hannity said he would host a two-hour event, Newsom shot back: “Make it three.”
Last week, the Newsom campaign followed up with a formal offer to Hannity. And Wednesday night on Fox, DeSantis accepted: “Absolutely, I’m game. Let’s get it done. Just tell me when and where.”
A Newsom aide, to Politico: “DeSantis should put up or shut up. Anything else is just games.”
Under the rules proposed by the Newsom camp, it would be a 90-minute live debate, but without an audience and without notes for either governor. It would be marketed as a red state vs. blue state policy discussion.
That seems just fine with DeSantis, who said that the California vs. Florida debate is already happening and people have been “voting on it with their feet,” fleeing the Golden State for his.
By the way, DeSantis plans to be in California on Sept. 29, as a keynote speaker at the California Republican Party convention. The party announced Wednesday that he’ll speak several hours after former President Donald Trump, who delivers the lunch keynote and who got a leg up in California’s March presidential primary with some delegate rules changes over the weekend.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: The growing scandal in Anaheim is just the latest corruption case to strike Southern California.
Here’s what Disney’s exit from Florida says about how inclusiveness boosts the business climate in California, writes Julie Lynem, a journalism lecturer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and co-founder of R.A.C.E. Matters SLO County and RaiseUp SLO.
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