The state Assembly's appalling attempt to hide its own budget and expenditure records from public view should embarrass every member of the Legislature's lower house.
Now that a Sacramento Superior Court judge has, in no uncertain terms, ordered release of the documents, Assembly members should discard any thought of appealing the case and apologize for keeping secret the most fundamental accounting of taxpayer money.
There was never an excuse for withholding the information, and Assembly members' pathetic court arguments for doing so call into question their ability to protect the public dime and their respect for the basic principle of government transparency.
Unfortunately, rather than an apology, we see more double-speak out of the leaders in their fight to hide the numbers.
"We remain committed to improving public access to information about the operations of the California State Assembly," Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, and Rules Committee Chairwoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said in a joint statement after Judge Timothy Frawley's tentative ruling last week.
Remain committed? As this case demonstrated, there was no past commitment to public access. Instead, Pérez and Skinner fought the Los Angeles Times' and Sacramento Bee's requests so they could cover up the way Assembly leaders dole out taxpayer money to their members as rewards for their votes.
The issue came to a head when Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, said his office funding had been cut for being the only Democrat in the Assembly to vote against this year's state budget.
Judge Frawley appreciated the seriousness of the issue as he affirmed that the "strong public interest in disclosure outweighs any reasons for keeping the records secret." He rejected the Assembly's insulting claims that it could hide the budget documents because they were supposedly drafts and that they would expose the deliberative process of lawmakers.
He also nixed Assembly claims that the budget documents fell under an exemption protecting third-party communications to legislators, and that the documents could be kept secret because they were not included in certain mandatory financial reporting requirements. The Assembly members even tried to argue that the judicial branch didn't have the authority to interpret laws affecting the Legislature.
The arguments were an attack on the public's ability to monitor taxpayer dollars, and an affront to the principle of separation of powers. Frawley rejected them all, correctly noting that open-records laws should be construed "to ensure maximum disclosure of the conduct of government operations."
"The records," the judge concluded, "all reflect how Assembly money is budgeted and spent, which is critical to an understanding of the Legislature's operations."
Unfortunately, for too long, Assembly leaders did not see it that way and chose to fight to keep their own constituents in the dark. Now, Pérez and Skinner say, "we will revise our procedures accordingly."
Actions speak louder than words.