California voters are being asked to force transparency in the Legislature. Here’s a Proposition 54 explainer.
The backers of Proposition 54 don’t have to do much to explain their motivation for imposing a waiting period for final action on bills by the California Legislature.
History, it turns out, does it for them just fine.
There was the time in 2014 when an extension of a tax break for installing solar panels mysteriously appeared in the state budget and was on the governor’s desk in less than two days.
Or the time in 2011 when a plan to fast-track a proposed NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles received final approval from the state Senate only hours after the final bill language was unveiled.
And then two legends in Sacramento’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hall of fame: Two days for review of the 1996 plan that deregulated California’s energy industry, and the late-night deal in 2009 to create the top-two primary system. That one still was marked with handwritten scribbling when it went to the desk of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
None of these would have been allowed had Proposition 54 been in effect.
“I understand there are people out there who like the status quo,” said Sam Blakeslee, a former Republican legislative leader and one of the ballot measure’s proponents. “But virtually everyone who’s been there says this is long overdue.”
The proposed amendment to the state Constitution, one of 17 propositions facing voters on Nov. 8, appears tantalizingly simple: No bill can receive a final vote in either the state Assembly or Senate until its final language has been posted online for 72 hours.
The idea first surfaced several years ago in a proposal supported by a bipartisan group of legislators but failed to gain traction among reluctant lawmakers who argued some legislative deals are simply too politically delicate to survive the waiting period.
Proposition 54 offers only a narrow exemption to the three-day waiting period, allowing it to be waived during a natural disaster when the governor declares a state of emergency and after a supermajority vote in both legislative houses.
Blakeslee, who left office in 2012, said his time as a community college trustee in the late 1990s made clear how much more transparency there is in local government than under the state Capitol dome.
“This is the beginning of a sense that people are going to have to live by the rules,” he said.
The ballot measure also would impose new public meetings rules on the Legislature, requiring all committee hearings and floor sessions to be videotaped and accessible online within 24 hours and for a period of up to 20 years. A small additional provision would remove an existing ban on using video of a legislative meeting in future political advertisements.
Legislators attempted to find a compromise version of the plan earlier this year, but Proposition 54’s backers declined to withdraw their ballot proposal. Since then, there has been little organized opposition.
Even so, lawmakers and legislative staffers opposed to Proposition 54 point out key laws they believe would never have happened if a three-day waiting period was in place, allowing interest groups to exert significant pressure before a final vote.
That includes several state budget agreements and even a landmark 1963 law banning racial discrimination in housing sales and rentals.
In those kinds of instances, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) said at an event this month at Cal State Sacramento, Proposition 54 could simply allow “people and interests who can afford to hire a whole heck of a lot of lobbyists … to scramble the jets and have certain pieces of legislation voted down.”
“We will get a different kind of mischief-making,” Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) said at the same event.
Rendon, who has not taken a formal position on the measure, said he also worries that its mandates on video recording would be “incredibly expensive to our institution.”
Supporters dismiss those costs — estimated at about $1 million annually — as minimal in the context of the Legislature’s $298-million operating budget. They also reject the idea of the waiting period as an insurmountable hurdle to political deal-making, given that legislatures in several other states and Congress already operate with some form of waiting period for a bill’s final language to be publicly reviewed.
Still, a three-day delay from the crafting of controversial policy to a final vote in either house is unlikely to put an end to all forms of political maneuvering in state government. One of the most criticized examples in recent years, a 2014 mandate for school districts to spend reserve cash on things like teacher salaries, was a last-minute deal but still had three days in print before a final vote.
Blakeslee said Proposition 54 should only be seen as a single step toward transparency.
“This doesn’t protect the public from incompetence,” he said, “but it does protect them from ignorance.”
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