It’s time to bring transparency to back-room legislating
SACRAMENTO — Imagine a lawmaker being allowed to read a proposed law before voting on it.
For that matter — and this seems like a stretch — try to envision the public being offered an opportunity to express its view on a bill before legislators vote.
Granted, this is a radical concept — at least during the final secretive, skulking days of a legislative session. We’re talking usually late summer, although legislative sleight-of-hand can occur anytime, including the dead of winter.
“Can you imagine the mischief that would stop?” says Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana).
Correa is a coauthor of newly introduced, bipartisan legislation that would impose a three-day waiting period on final passage of a bill
Historically, legislators not only have tweaked but twisted bills into unrecognizable shape right up until the final gavel falls adjourning a session, leaving most lawmakers little time to think about what they’re voting on.
Lobbyists and legislators meet in crannies of Capitol corridors, patching together laws. Halls are cluttered with smelly, empty pizza boxes discarded by anxious lobbyists. Cold coffee splashes from soggy cups.
Bleary-eyed legislators sag in their chamber seats, waiting for a printed bill to vote on.
Maybe there’s a brief, perfunctory committee hearing on a substantially amended bill in a small room behind the chamber, just for the record. Certainly not for the public, because there was only five minutes’ notice.
“We get these ‘midnight specials,’ ” says Correa, a moderate Democrat from a competitive district who doesn’t always vote with his party. “They’re writing this stuff as fast as the copiers will let them. We get a 200-page document with all kinds of markings and deletions.
“That’s not the optimum way to make laws....
“It’s in that midnight hour that the lobbyists make their living.”
Says Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who heads the important Governance and Finance Committee: “There are a whole host of lobbyists who simply wait until the end of a session, then come out. You see them. The big guns. They manage the bills themselves. It’s all gut and amend.”
Gut and amend is the common, ugly practice of gutting a bill that has gone through open committee hearings and a floor vote — just like it calls for in the textbooks — and amending it with entirely new content. Maybe even different subject matter. Rules are suspended. Public scrutiny is avoided.
“Sometimes we don’t even have the [bill] text in front of us,” Wolk says. “When I try to explain to people what happens in the last weeks of a session — and the very poor pieces of legislation that emerge — they’re shocked.”
Wolk, Correa and three other legislators are proposing the three-day waiting period. The others are Senate GOP leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) and Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto).
Their proposed constitutional amendment would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature — a long shot — and then the California electorate.
It would require that all legislation be in print and online for 72 hours before either house could vote final passage. Bills responding to a state of emergency declared by the governor would be exempt.
I used to think this was a naïve idea — a great concept in abstract, but unworkable in the practical world of effective legislating. A governor and Legislature should always be allowed to reach last-minute compromises, I wrote.
But I’ve concluded it’s a reform whose time has come, especially with increasing one-party rule in California and the Democrats’ newly won supermajorities in both legislative houses. There needs to be some break to slow down Democratic steamrollers.
There still would be last-minute compromises, but they’d be moved up 72 hours to allow all legislators and the public to examine the deal.
“A lot of members probably wouldn’t look at the bill, but they’d have no excuse,” Huff says.
Now at the end of sessions, the GOP leader says, “we operate under rules we sometimes invent on the fly….
“We don’t know that some sneaky staff member or lobbyist has sneaked something in a bill. We’re stuck with what’s actually in the bill rather than what we thought was there.”
He adds, “We may get fewer bills passed. That’s possible. But I don’t see that as a bad thing.”
It would be a very good thing. During the last two-year session, the Legislature passed nearly 1,900 bills.
The three-day waiting period was proposed last year by a reform group called California Forward. It sponsored a ballot initiative, Proposition 31, which was soundly rejected. But the measure had other elements that were controversial and convoluted.
The new legislation also contains another needed provision: allowing legislative committees to begin acting on bills 15 days after they’re introduced, rather than 30 days. That would speed up legislating and give lawmakers something to do in January.
There’s too much time wasted because of an outdated snail mail — actually horse-and-buggy — rule that requires adequate public notice. It’s a license to procrastinate. And the rule is routinely ignored anyway whenever the legislative leadership chooses.
No one is under the illusion that this proposal will sail through the Legislature. “I hope we’ll get a hearing,” says Wolk, somewhat facetiously.
“Transparency is part of democracy,” asserts Olsen, a former Modesto City Council member who notes that local governments operate under strict open-meeting laws.
“We should be encouraging civic engagement rather than trying to find ways to avoid it.”
As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously observed: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
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