By Dan Walters | CALmatters Commentary
Knowledge, it’s been said, is power. And that explains, in a nutshell, why those in public office fundamentally dislike, and often resist, revealing information to the voting and taxpaying public.
That’s especially evident in Washington, where information is a commodity to be acquired, hoarded and traded — and only reluctantly shared with the larger public.
The flap over the secret drafting of a health care bill in the Republican-controlled Senate is only one of countless examples of how access to information, or the lack thereof, preoccupies the nation’s capital.
While Democrats complain loudly about secret backroom deals in Washington, the Gucci is on the other foot in Sacramento, where their party is dominant.
The Capitol’s Democrats are quite willing to use their monopoly on information to their advantage, as this year’s budget process demonstrated.
Until the last possible legal moment — a new law requires bills to be in print for 72 hours before final action — Democrats sat on details of what the budget would contain, and that was particularly true of the many “trailer” bills that accompany the main budget measure.
As usual, the secretly drafted trailers contained countless specific decrees that had nothing, truly, to do with the budget itself. Because they require only simple majority votes to enact and take effect immediately upon signing — preventing them from being challenged via referendum — trailers have become convenient vehicles for enacting changes in law without going through the usual legislative process.
A couple of those semi-secret trailers, ironically, were aimed at creating even more official secrets by modifying one of the state’s most important sunshine laws, the Public Records Act.
One, written by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, would stamp a “top secret” label on plans to handle emergencies at dams, saying it’s needed to “protect public safety.”
It was approved in the wake of the Oroville Dam crisis, in which nearly 200,000 residents along the Feather River, north of Sacramento, were evacuated when it appeared the dam could fail. The Republican assemblyman who represents the affected area, James Gallagher, complained about placement of the provision in a budget trailer bill without full legislative hearings, but to no avail.
It continues state water officials’ curious habit of dragging their feet on releasing information about Oroville’s problems. Portions of the dam’s main spillway collapsed, apparently due to faulty design and/or construction a half-century ago, and an emergency spillway almost failed.
So does making information about Oroville and other dams secret really protect public safety, or just shield officials from criticism?
Another trailer bill would exempt personal contact information about local and state government employees from the state’s Public Records Act. It would ban public agencies from releasing that information to anyone but unions, which are already granted access to it and whose members make up many of those worker ranks.
Why the ban? A pending U.S. Supreme Court case could set aside a California law requiring all public workers to pay dues to unions, even if they are not members. If it happens, the trailer bill’s new public records exemption would make it difficult, or impossible, for anyone to contact workers and suggest that they stop paying dues.
Giving unions — which are major Democratic funders — access to data that the public cannot obtain demonstrates that information is, indeed, power.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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