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    Wrong way to boost state transparency
    • October 8, 2023


    Transparent government is good government. But it has to be done the right way.

    An incorrect way to achieve transparent government is the Government Transparency Act initiative submitted last month to the office of Attorney General Rob Bonta for a title and summary, after which signatures will be gathered. It is sponsored by Consumer Watchdog, a progressive consumer group. Consumer Watchdog is best known for sponsoring Proposition 103 in 1988, which increased state regulation of the insurance industry and made the insurance commissioner an elected position.

    The proposed initiative declares California open-records laws “have been abused or weakened by legislators and government officials.” The legislators attend junkets in “exotic places” and collect money from “special interest donors behind closed doors.” And government agencies unreasonably limit searches for records on public officials.

    To correct that, the initiative would require legislators to disclose meetings with lobbyists and fundraising events by special interest groups. And it would curb companies’ ability to file “preemptive lawsuits to deny access to public records.”

    If the initiative merely proposed tightening public-records laws, it might be reasonable. Unfortunately, it also includes this clause in Section 3: “Allows the public to bring legal actions to address past violations of the law and to prevent threatened future actions that would undermine access to public records.”

    That’s vague. And it reeks of lawsuits under the state’s Private Attorneys General Act.

    Normally lawsuits against state employment laws are filed by the attorney general or a local district attorney. But PAGA allows private employees to file civil lawsuits against their own companies. According to Tom Manzo, the president and founder of the California Business and Industrial Alliance, a PAGA lawsuit on average costs the employer $1.1 million in total fees. The costs are passed on to customers, while giving businesses another reason to leave the state.

    On the new initiative, Denise Davis of the California Chamber of Commerce told us the chamber won’t take position unless the initiative qualifies for the ballot, “But the precedent that it would set in terms of opening up retroactive lawsuits while limiting businesses ability to use the legal system is very troubling.”

    The initiative is 29 pages long, with many dense sections difficult for voters to parse. There have been no public hearings in the Legislature, where experts and the general public can testify about potential effects. Granted, the initiative is aimed at a problem in the Legislature. But this really is something the Legislature itself should take up and examine at public hearings. When pressured by citizens, it actually can solve festering problems, as with workers’ compensation reforms in 2004 and 2012 to control rising costs to employers.

    The initiative also doesn’t address one of the main reasons businesses lobby in the Capitol: to defend themselves against the immense number of unneeded regulations the Legislature already passed.

    Consumer Watchdog ought to withdraw this initiative and refashion it without the problems we addressed above. Assuming, of course, its goal is simply to improve government transparency.

    The Legislature also ought to reform lobbyist disclosure laws itself to head off this or similar efforts, while delivering meaningful transparency.

    We encourage lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to do this, not for their own sake, but for the sake of Californians who deserve to know what their government and elected representatives are up to.

    ​ Orange County Register