Voters chose transparency. But for the Legislature, interpretation is the issue

A dispute over the meaning of Proposition 54, the new voter-approved change to how fast bills can be approved by the Legislature, could end up in front of the California Supreme Court next year in a showdown between Democratic lawmakers and government accountability groups.

“It’s a very high-stakes game,” said Charles Munger Jr., one of the official authors of the ballot measure.

The disagreement centers on whether the law’s 72-hour waiting period before final action on a bill applies to either chamber of the Legislature, or only when the proposal is on the verge of being sent to the governor. The question is important because a bill typically has at least two “final” votes: one in the house in which it was introduced and a concurrence vote in the other house.

On Monday, the Assembly enacted operational rules with the more narrow interpretation, saying only that  a “Senate bill shall not be voted upon by the Assembly for final passage” until after the 72-hour waiting period.

“We don’t regard an Assembly bill that still has to go through the gantlet of the Senate as a final vote,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova), the new chairman of the Assembly’s rules committee.

Proposition 54, approved by more than 65% of voters on Nov. 8, promised to end the practice of passing last-minute legislation where the bill’s language isn’t distributed to the public prior to passage. The official voter guide’s summary said the constitutional amendment would ban lawmakers “from passing any bill” unless published on the Internet “for 72 hours” before the vote.

That language is what Munger and the initiative’s backers believe covers action by either house of the Legislature taking what could be a “final” vote on a bill.

“Someone will go to the California Supreme Court” if legislation is passed in 2017 using the Assembly’s narrow new rule, said Munger on Friday. “And it might be me.”

Disputes over the intent and effect of the new rules have festered between Proposition 54 backers and lawmakers since the summertime, as lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to offer Munger and his supporters a compromise proposal if they would withdraw their initiative.

Proposition 54 asked voters to force new transparency in the Legislature »

Critics of the ballot measure believe that powerful interest groups will use the waiting period to crush support for delicate political agreements on important but controversial policies. Proposition 54 supporters disagree, and view the new Assembly rule as a way to simply shield the political sausage-making long enough for private negotiations to seal the deal.

“They will graciously allow the public to read the bill in the house where they’ve already locked up the votes,” Munger said.

The state Senate, in its operating rules adopted this week, was silent on the issue of the new 72-hour waiting period. Both houses traditionally vote on organizational rules on the first day of a two-year session, rules implemented by a majority vote. Assembly Republicans voted against the narrow interpretation of Proposition 54 written by Democrats.

The legality of the Assembly policy could come into play early in 2017. Democrats have promised swift action to blunt potential immigration crackdowns by President-elect Donald Trump, bills crafted to take effect immediately if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. In the event that a court ruled the Assembly’s procedural rules violate Proposition 54, those laws could be thrown out.

The initiative’s backers, including the League of Women Voters and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., sent a letter to leaders of the Legislature on Dec. 2 raising the implementation of the bill waiting period as one concern.

Cooley, the chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee, insisted in an interview that the coalition is reading the new transparency law too broadly.

“The final vote,” he said, “is only when it’s potentially going to the governor’s desk.”

john.myers@latimes.com

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