California Makes A Move To Further Separate The Public From Its Public Records
from the our-paywall-now-insurmountably-higher! dept
The fact that the public is still charged fees to access public records already seems rather questionable. After all, the creation of these documents is paid for by taxpayers. Keeping them locked up behind a governmental paywall often seems like double-dipping.
It’s time to add one more to the list of government entities continuing to separate the public from public records with access fees. This time it’s the state of California manning the ratchet.
A proposal to drastically increase fees for the public and press to look at court records is still up in the air after divergent votes from the California Senate and Assembly.
The fee, embodied in trailer bill language supported by the governor, the Judicial Council and its administrative arm, will inevitably restrict access to public documents and has raised an outcry from newspaper publishers and open-government advocates.
California courts already charge $15 for searches of court records that take more than 10 minutes.
The proposal from the Administrative Office of the Courts and backed by Gov. Jerry Brown would have the state charge $10 for every name, file or information that comes back on any search, regardless of the time spent.
$10 a search result? Granted, this would be an in-person, human-powered search at a courthouse, but this is ridiculous. Those pushing this increase have offered several different rationales for the increase (curb data mining, raise money, clerks not equipped with stopwatches), but have been completely unable to project whether this increase will offset the (apparently) increased costs.
One argument against the fee is that its advocates have not been able to tie it to an actual dollar amount, a fact admitted in a Judicial Council report that said: “The amount of revenue this proposal will bring in is impossible to estimate.”
It’s a government thing. Take a vague feeling that the public is draining public services of money and use this non-estimate as justification for a rate hike. Meanwhile, supporters will likely continue to count unhatched budgetary chickens without considering the worst case scenario (which is also the most common scenario associated with tax hikes). Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association points out what should be obvious to lawmakers at this point:
“…[I]f it’s adopted there is going to be very little additional funding, because people just aren’t going to make the request. There’s going to be even less understanding of government court activities. It’s very shortsighted.”
You raise the price, you get fewer purchasers. Government services aren’t that much different from retail services, especially when the “consumer” is paying directly.
So, how does something this unpopular (at least with open government advocates and the press) get as far as this did? Easy. All you have to do is move quickly and exclude interested parties from the discussion.
The votes in both houses were taken at budget subcommittee hearings dealing with a host of judicial branch issues. There was no debate or discussion at either hearing.
The Assembly committee rejected the fee increase. The Senate committee approved it, with a stipulation that members of the press be exempt. There is no language, at this point, on what a press exemption would entail.
There’s an exemption, but no one outside of the involved legislators has the details. What seems to be certain is that fees will be increasing, something a cash-strapped government like California’s would be unlikely to reject. At this point, the fee increase is scheduled to head to a conference committee for further discussion. Ewert hopes this one will actually involve the public.
Ewert said he hopes lawmakers will give the CNPA and other press and freedom of information groups the opportunity to provide input.
“[I]t’s just a bad idea to deny access to records that the public has already paid for, and shield the public from an institution that it already has very little understanding about.”
As Ewert points out, this rate hike will only increase the distance between the public and the records they should rightfully have access to. Worse, it will disproportionately affect citizens with limited income. This increase, if passed, will not only allow the state to tax its constituents multiple times for the same records, it will turn public record access into a privilege, rather than a right.