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California Legislature

Where bills go to die: Lawmakers begin clearing the 'suspense file' with hundreds of measures in limbo

 (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

From a sales tax exemption on tampons to healthcare rules and marijuana regulation, a massive stack of proposed laws faces a major deadline Friday morning at the state Capitol.

To survive, they must clear what's known as the "suspense file" -- the place where bills that would cost taxpayers money are held in legislative limbo.

By law, bills with a fiscal impact must be sent to the floor of the Assembly and Senate by the close of business on Friday. That means it's decision time for more than 800 pieces of legislation.

The Senate's fiscal committee will decide the fate of bills on Thursday; the Assembly will do so on Friday.

Bills are generally sent to the "suspense file" if their projected cost to the state is $150,000 or more. The procedural move was widely used during California's deficit years as a way for lawmakers to weigh the pros and cons of proposals in light of limited resources.

But government watchdog groups have long pointed out that the clearing of the "suspense file" ends up hiding some of the legislative sausage-making from public view.

That's because bills that don't clear Friday's hurdle are essentially killed without a recorded vote.

And neither chamber offers any explanation for why those bills were killed. Decisions on the fate of the "suspense file" are made in private, hours or days before the public hearing.

In the Assembly, the appropriations committee chairperson will simply tell the public that a decision has been made to "hold" the bill. In the Senate committee, killed legislation won't even be mentioned during Thursday's hearing.

That means that no one will know for sure whether a bill is really killed because of its price tag or its politics.

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