Who pays for all those public records?


In the end it wasn’t really about public records or the people’s right to see them. It was about money. And a generation-long spat between state and local governments about who pays for what.

To recap: Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a budget that would have saved the state some money by lifting the mandate on cities, counties, school districts and other local governments to help members of the public get public records. The Assembly at first said no but ultimately went along with the whole budget package, as did the Senate.

News organizations and advocates complained. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) said his people would reverse their vote and keep the public records requirement intact. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said his people would instead propose a constitutional amendment that would make clear that local governments had to pay for access to public records in the future. Then Pérez and Brown said they would go for the amendment to preserve future access, and Steinberg said he would also go for changing the budget law to preserve access in the short term. Then Brown said he would sign the amendment and the revised budget.

So now we’re good.

But again, it was all about the money.

The magic word is “mandate.” It used to be that Sacramento would pass all kinds of laws ordering local governments to do things that they couldn’t afford. Could they do that?


Yes, under something known as Dillon’s Rule, set forth by in the 19th century by a judge. From Iowa.

In a court ruling, John Forrest Dillon wrote that municipalities are creations of states and therefore subservient to states, and essentially had to do what states tell them to do. There were other government theorists at the time who argued instead that cities and counties had the same relationship with states that states did with the federal government, with each having its own purview, but with federal power limited to whatever was specifically granted in the Constitution. But Dillon said no, it’s a different relationship between cities, counties and schools, on the one hand, and states, on the other. The Supreme Court later adopted his rule.

But in California, the voters hold sway over all levels of government and they modified the application of Dillon’s rule here. After local governments complained about unfunded mandates, and after Proposition 13 shrank the pot of property tax money that used to be split among the locals and the state, voters adopted a measure to prevent the state from requiring cities, counties, schools and other locals from doing anything that cost money – unless the mandate also came with state money to pay for it.

So now if the governor wants to cut the state budget, he can comb through the fund the state keeps to reimburse locals for complying with things like the Public Records Act, and he can decide to stop paying those reimbursements. But to do that, the state has to lift the mandates.

That’s what Brown tried to do this year with the Public Records Act.

It’s a form of realignment. What does the state do, versus what do the locals do? Who pays for what? It has been the central question in state and local government even before Proposition 13, but especially since then.

Take public safety realignment. There are all kinds of arguments about why local governments would be better than the state at keeping track of felons and parolees, just as they’re better at keeping track of misdemeanants and probationers. But realignment was adopted in 2011 in part to wipe the budget item from the state’s books and transfer it to the locals. With some money, of course, so it wouldn’t be an funded mandate.

There have been previous realignments – of mental health services, for example. And there will more, usually in areas dealing with human services – welfare, healthcare and the like.

And yes, policymakers will talk about which level of government can serve the public better. But they’ll really be talking, at least in part, about which level ought to pay for it.

Either way, the same taxpayers get the bill. The only question is whether that bill comes from Sacramento or the county tax collector.