Former Gov. Jerry Brown famously wrote in a veto message that “not every human condition deserves a law,” a viewpoint worth pondering in light of the fact that a staggering 2,576 bills were introduced in the Legislature before last week’s deadline.
That is likely to be a record, according to statistics compiled by Chris Micheli, a veteran lobbyist who tracks the legislative process. Even in years with lots of bills — the annual average since 2013 has been close to 2,200 — the first year of this current two-year session in Sacramento stands out.
In part, it’s because so many of them are little more than empty vessels, introduced in either the state Senate or Assembly as a placeholder. A review of legislative records Saturday found 694 so-called “intent” bills promising details will later be announced on ideas including wildfire warning sirens and free school meals with California-grown products. Specific ways to make good on those intentions won’t come for several more months.
Even less clear in many cases is who actually wrote the bills. California allows lobbyists to write a proposed law from start to finish and then have a legislator introduce it as his or her own work. It’s officially called a “sponsored bill,” but there’s little consistency to knowing who’s the real force behind it.
The bills are vetted by the Legislature’s lawyers — at taxpayer expense — and often shopped by lobbyists around the Capitol in search of a lawmaker who will be the official author. While longtime legislative watchers say good ideas shouldn’t be dismissed simply because they came from interest groups, uneven transparency in the process can make it almost impossible to know the real reason the bill is being considered in the first place.
Regardless of who writes them, the bills keep coming — up to 40 proposals for each senator and 50 for each Assembly member during the two-year session. And now, the rush is on to get all of them heard in the proper legislative policy committee over the next nine weeks, the most significant moment for digging deep into the details.
Lawmakers don’t deny there are a lot of bills but often point out that citizens who grumble over lots of laws should sometimes look in the mirror.
“If I took every bill idea coming from my constituents,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said, “I’d have a bill package of, like, 100.”
As chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, Gonzalez will play a key role later this year in weeding out many of the proposals — another legislative tradition that isn’t totally transparent.
In a meeting with The Times’ Sacramento bureau last week, Gonzalez said perhaps what the Legislature should do to improve the law-writing process is remove most existing deadlines. If a bill could be introduced at almost any point in the legislative calendar, she said, then discussions on crafting better policy in committee hearings wouldn’t be limited to just a few months and instead would be year-round.
As it stands, bills with serious financial implications sometimes have to clear key committees with blank spaces for what the law in question would cost taxpayers, simply because everyone ran out of time.
“The only deadline would be the end of the session,” she said. “Maybe that would work better.”
Gonzalez said she’s not quite ready to push that kind of change. But with so many proposals whizzing by in late winter and early spring, it can be hard for lawmakers and citizens alike to fully understand what’s at stake. As it stands, the bills constitute an incredibly long to-do list for elected officials — one they must quickly make their way through starting this week.