The Sacramento Bee reports that political and open records watchdog groups filed suit today seeking to force the California Legislature to provide a digital copy of its computer database for tracking thousands of votes and other bill information.
Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine refused the request by MAPLight.org in July, asserting in a letter that the California Public Records Act "does not require disclosure of the database itself."
The California Public Records Act exempts all legislative branch records, but the Legislative Open Records Act provides, in Government Code Section 9075:
(f) In the custody of or maintained by the Legislative Counsel, except those records in the public data base maintained by the Legislative Counsel that are described in Section 10248.
Section 10248 provides, in pertinent part:
(a) The Legislative Counsel shall, with the advice of the Assembly Committee on Rules and the Senate Committee on Rules, make all of the following information available to the public in electronic form:
(1) The legislative calendar, the schedule of legislative committee hearings, a list of matters pending on the floors of both houses of the Legislature, and a list of the committees of the Legislature and their members.
(2) The text of each bill introduced in each current legislative session, including each amended, enrolled, and chaptered form of each bill.
(3) The bill history of each bill introduced and amended in each current legislative session.
(4) The bill status of each bill introduced and amended in each current legislative session.
(5) All bill analyses prepared by legislative committees in connection with each bill in each current legislative session.
(6) All vote information concerning each bill in each current legislative session.
(7) Any veto message concerning a bill in each current legislative session.
(8) The California Codes.
(9) The California Constitution.
(10) All statutes enacted on or after January 1, 1993.
(b) The information identified in subdivision (a) shall be made available to the public by means of access by way of the largest nonproprietary, nonprofit cooperative public computer network. The information shall be made available in one or more formats and by one or more means in order to provide the greatest feasible access to the general public in this state. Any person who accesses the information may access all or any part of the information. The information may also be made available by any other means of access that would facilitate public access to the information. . .
(c) Any documentation that describes the electronic digital formats of the information identified in subdivision (a) and is available to the public shall be made available by means of access by way of the computer network specified in subdivision (b).
(f) The electronic public access provided by way of the computer network specified in subdivision (b) shall be in addition to other electronic or print distribution of the information.
The legislative database is not linked to other online information showing which legislator has gotten what political contributions from which sources, a link that is provided as a public service by the principal plaintiff in the case.
Daniel Newman, MAPLight.org's executive director, said the state's position makes it exceedingly more difficult for public interest groups to track legislation and reveal the connection between campaign contributions and lawmakers' votes.
"It is as if the legislative counsel is giving us a 10,000 page printout (in material posted on the web) but not the computer spread sheets the information is printed from," Newman said. "The law is that the government has to give the public records in any format it possesses."
UPDATE: In his comment on the lawsuit, San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Page Editor John Diaz provides a list of "the games they play in Sacramento" with lawmakers' voting records, plus a hint that the litigation may be averted if new Senate President pro Tem (majority leader) has his way. Meanwhile, says Diaz,
I have no doubt the group would find rich terrain in Sacramento. As readers of our editorial pages over the years know, one of my pet peeves is the tendency of legislators to fail to votea practice known as "laying off" or "taking a walk"on particularly controversial consumer and environmental issues. Time after time, I have found a direct correlation between nonvoting legislators and the flow of special-interest contributions. In one particularly notorious example from 2003, legislators on a key Assembly committee were serving desserts to lobbyists at a private-home fundraiser (advertised as a "Night of Chocolate Decadence") just before a bill to re-regulate energy came up for a vote. The bill died when 11 of the 14 committee members failed to vote.
As someone who has tried to track voting records, I know that the current site is woefully incompleteto the point of being misleadingon roll-call votes. Under the Assembly rules, members who missed a vote are allowed to "add on" after the outcome has been decided. And they doI've caught them, and named names, over the years. Even more outrageously, hours after a measure's defeat or passage, a member can change his or her vote from "yes" to "no"and vice versaas long as it does not change the outcome. Again, this is not a theoretical possibility. I've seen it happenand reported on it.