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Yee's Cal-Access Bill Reconsidered, Approved Along with Other Open Government Bills
May 31, 2012
SACRAMENTO – One day after legislation to modernize Cal-Access – the state’s website that provides public access to campaign contributions and lobbying activity – fell 6 votes short of passage, today the bill was reconsidered and approved on a 27-10.
SB 1001, authored by Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), will create the Political Disclosure, Access, and Transparency Fund which will be funded by increased fees of registered lobbyists and a new fee on political committees that file statements of organization, such as independent expenditures (IEs) and political action committees (PACs).
In addition to SB 1001, two other open government bills authored by Yee were also approved. SB 1002 – approved on a 34-0 vote – creates the state’s open data standard by requiring public documents and data to be user-friendly and searchable by commonly used software. SB 1003 –approved on a 22-11 vote – will ensure greater transparency of local governments.
Late last year, Cal-Access was shut down for several weeks as a result of outdated technology. The shutdown resulted in the public being unable to access how much money entities were spending on lobbying activity or donating to political campaigns.
“I am very pleased that the Senate reconsidered and approved SB 1001,” said Yee. “It is simply unacceptable to have such an outdated public disclosure system in our state. The crash of Cal-Access not only prevented public access, it meant government was not being transparent or being held accountable. SB 1001 will fix this very serious problem.”
“This bill is about supporting transparency and accountability to the public, plain and simple,” said Senator Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo). “Rather than burden the taxpayer, it is only appropriate that lobbyists and politicians pay their fair share for campaign finance and lobbying activity disclosure.”
“At a time when the Secretary of State’s campaign and lobbying transparency website is outdated and constantly crashing, this common sense and long-awaited bill will make sure lobbyists and special interests pay their fair share in maintaining this essential public service,” said Phillip Ung, Policy Advocate for California Common Cause.
Currently, approximately 2,000 lobbyists pay only $50 in registration fees for each legislative session. The fees have not been increased since 1974. Yee’s bill would double the fees to $100.
Political committees, such as IEs, PACs, and candidate accounts, currently pay no fee in connection with their establishment. SB 1001 will create a $50 per year registration fee for these entities, of which there are about 7,800.
Yee’s bill is estimated to bring in approximately $600,000 to maintain, repair, and improve Cal-Access.
Derek Cressman, regional director for Common Cause, told the Los Angeles Times, “It is outright embarrassing that the state where Silicon Valley is leading the world in computer technology cannot maintain its campaign disclosure system up to modern standards. It should be a no brainer to raise [lobbyist] fees modestly to finance whatever improvements are needed in the Cal-Access system.”
California’s Open Data Standard
“Producing a 2,000 page electronic document that cannot be searched or sorted is inadequate and almost useless,” said Yee. “For too long, many government agencies – either by choice or inertia – have been living in the Stone Age when it comes to producing public documents. SB 1002 will finally bring public agencies into the 21st century.”
Often when government agencies post electronic records online or provide electronic copies of documents in response to a public records request, the data provided is simply a scanned graphic image file that is not searchable or able to be sorted, even though the agency has the file in a searchable format.
Under Yee’s SB 1002, such electronic documents would need to be produced in an open source file, word processing document, spreadsheet, database, or other format in which keywords or other data fields could be easily searched using commonly used software, which is often the format internally used by the public agency.
“SB 1002 will set the benchmark for transparency and government oversight in the 21st century,” said Jim Ewert, General Counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
“California agencies and its citizens will soon have the benefits of Open Data, including reduced IT costs and the development of next generation applications that will increase civic engagement and enhance public safety,” said David Cruise of San Francisco Tech Dems.
Stopping Brown Act violations
Unlike the Bagley-Keene Act, as a result of a recent court ruling, the Brown Act does not allow injunctive and declaratory relief for past violations of the state’s open meetings law. SB 1003 will add language to the current Brown Act to codify injunctive and declaratory relief for past violations.
“SB 1003 ensures the public has the tools necessary to hold public agencies that violate the Brown Act to account,” said Yee. “Absent this bill, some public agencies will continue to violate the public trust without consequence.”
“This is an important tool for the public to enforce the Brown Act and ensures California’s open meeting law does not become toothless,” said Ewert.
In McKee v. County of Tulare, the Court ruled that there could be no injunctive and declaratory relief for a past violation because the Tulare Board of Supervisors appeared to stop violating the law after the lawsuit was filed. Instead, the petitioners would need to initiate a new lawsuit if the board returned to its previous bad behavior.
The ruling created the potential for an endless loop – violation, followed by corrective behavior once a lawsuit is filed, followed by a violation again – without any real penalty.
“The Brown Act was designed to bring transparency to government, and not to serve as means to play dodge ball to avoid accountability,” said Yee. “SB 1003 will close this loophole and provide sunshine into the actions of our public agencies.”
The bills will now be considered by the State Assembly.
Contact: Adam J. Keigwin,