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Open government advocates say additions to California budget bill would devastate public records law

The California legislature has added wording to the state budget bill that open government advocates say would devastate the state's public records laws.

The added language would allow government officials to turn down records requests without written record of the basis for denial. Officials would no longer need to cite legal reasons for withholding information. The 10-day deadline for officials to respond to public records requests would be removed. Officials would no longer be required to provide electronic records in the desired format of the requester, nor would government workers be obligated to help members of the public understand what records exist.

Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher's Association, told the San Jose Mercury News that the proposal was the worst assault on the public's right to know he'd seen in his 18 years of experience.

The wording included in the bill, authored by the state's Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, ostensibly was intended to reduce expenses for small municipal governments. Opponents of the change have pointed out that no estimates have been produced as to savings from the change.

The California-based First Amendment Coalition has drafted a form letter addressed to California Gov. Jerry Brown, urging him to veto the portions of the bill that it claims will weaken the public records law.

California had a reputation for lacking transparency even before those portions of the the bill were first reported on Friday. The State Integrity Project, a joint investigation by The Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, gave California's access to information laws and culture a "D-" rating. However, more than a dozen states scored worse than California with an "F" rating.

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