Last week the public got some good news, courtesy of a Sacramento Superior Court judge. Ruling on a lawsuit by a number of California newspapers against the California Assembly, the judge found that despite the Assembly's argument to the contrary, our state's lower house is required to disclosure lawmakers' budget records. The Assembly had denied requests by the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and Pasadena Sun for the budget records of members of the Assembly.
As I have previously written here and here, this lawsuit grew out of dispute between termed-out Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D) and Assembly Speaker John Perez (D). Portatino claimed that Perez punished him for being the only Democrat to vote against the 2011 budget by cutting Portantino's budget. Perez countered that Portantino was a wasteful spender. In order to try disprove Perez's claims, Portantino requested budget and expenditure records.
The argument transformed into a much broader discussion about applicability of the Legislative Open Records Act and more generally of the transparency that the public can and should require of its elected officials.
It is important to note exactly what we're talking about here. We are not referring to lawmakers' private affairs. Instead, what we are referring to are taxpayer dollars spent by publicly elected officials. This is public money used by people who have asked for the public's vote in order to best represent them. Barring significant privacy issues which require budgetary information to remain private, budget records of lawmakers should absolutely be disclosed. This is the public's business.
It remains to be seen whether lawyers for the Assembly will appeal Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley's decision. If the Assembly has any political acumen it will decline to appeal this sound decision. As Judge Frawley found, the public's interest in obtaining this information trumps any reason to keep this information about the use of taxpayer money private.
Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School.