State Senate leaders have delayed a few days, until at least Monday, a vote on a constitutional amendment intended to strengthen open-government laws that might actually do just the opposite.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg insists he learned from public and press outrage over lawmakers' recently aborted attempt to pass legislation that would have gutted the state Public Records Act.

Now, in a complete reversal, he says he wants to strengthen rights of access to government documents and meetings. That's laudable. But his new proposed constitutional amendment has serious flaws that could undermine its stated purpose.

SCA 3, introduced by Steinberg and Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, had been in print only four days when it cleared two Senate committees Tuesday. A Senate vote, originally planned for Thursday, has now been put off until next week, we're told.

Steinberg should show he's serious about transparency by slowing the process more to ensure rational review and discussion. There's potential here for positive change, but only if done thoughtfully.

This saga began because the California Constitution requires the state to reimburse local governments for costs of implementing laws imposed since 1975. That includes parts of the Public Records Act.


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Rather than pay those costs, the Legislature passed a budget bill earlier this month that included provisions making compliance with some of the records act optional. This is the law that has helped reveal, for example, excessive public salaries, pension spiking, a county supervisor's use of government funds to feed his gambling habit, and school district cover-ups of sexual abuse by teachers.

Legislators backed down after the outcry. The records act remains intact, but so does the state reimbursement obligation. Last week, Steinberg told us that he never intended to gut the act, only to force local government to pay "for what it should be doing."

We agree local governments should foot the bill for records act compliance, and with Steinberg's quest to amend the state constitution so the state isn't on the hook. But his proposal goes further.

If approved by the Legislature and voters, it would elevate to the state constitution requirements for local government compliance with the Public Records Act and the Brown Act open-meeting law.

Unfortunately, the two laws are riddled with exemptions allowing for secrecy. It's unclear whether those loopholes would also be enshrined in the constitution, giving them greater legal weight.

The amendment would also allow the Legislature and governor to alter the laws at any time. Thus lawmakers could effectively change the constitution without voter approval.

Steinberg could have simply proposed removing the constitutional requirement that the state reimburse local governments for compliance with sunshine laws. But if he also wants to place the two laws in the constitution, that should be done much more carefully.