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California Legislature’s silly season

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California has two legislative seasons. The first, with its six months of public hearings, debates, deliberations, deadlines and light-of-day voting, is for suckers. Capitol players wait for the 96 frenzied hours that follow Labor Day. That’s when lobbyists and lawmakers get together for a private carnival of fundraisers, backroom horse-trading, promises and threats. The rest of us must spend the following weeks sifting through the vacant Capitol floor’s debris to determine just what the Legislature dreamed up and adopted at the last minute.

During that final week of the session, all of the precise rules for introducing and vetting bills are thrown out the window, like a desk or a hapless freshman at a drunken fraternity party. Carefully crafted wording is stripped out of bills and replaced at the last minute with special favors for big labor, big business, big donors and big almost-anything-else. The twin illusions of due process and public participation dissolve.

Presiding over this insult to democracy are the Legislature’s two top Democrats, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez of Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, both of whom, with straight faces, told Californians that they would make lawmaking and the workings of their houses more open and transparent. As for the self-serving special-interest circus at the end of the session, what can they do? Emergencies arise, and they need to get bills passed right away. And every session has to end, so there will always be a last-minute bottleneck.

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But corruption, a great California poet wrote, never was compulsory. The session ends and all bills either pass or die because that’s the way they set up the system in the 19th century for a part-time Legislature of farmers and businessmen who had to get back home and go to work; and because that’s the way today’s Democrats and their labor allies know how to bend the rules for their own purposes. Californians could help win their government back for themselves by requiring bills that were substantially gutted and rewritten to pass only as true emergency measures, with a two-thirds vote; and by allowing brand-new bills to be introduced at any point in the legislative calendar — as long as they are subjected to the full panoply of public hearings and committee votes.

In the meantime, Gov. Jerry Brown could refuse to reward lawmakers and lobbyists for their end-of-session bill-fest. He could veto all but the few truly urgent measures that emerged in the week before and the week after Labor Day. At this stage in his career, he is almost uniquely positioned to be able to say no to the Legislature and its lobbying supplicants (and bosses).

But then, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was also almost uniquely positioned to be tough too. Look how that turned out.


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