Capitol Journal: Sunlight is the best disinfectant — and in California’s Legislature, there’s a lot to disinfect

The California state Capitol in Sacramento.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

California’s November ballot will be crammed with contentious and complex state ballot measures, enough to give voters a migraine. But one of them shouldn’t require two minutes’ thought.

It’s Proposition 54, a motherhood-and-apple-pie proposal if there ever was one.

That doesn’t mean there’s no opposition. There’s plenty. It’s just that hardly anyone — the state Democratic Party being one exception — wants to stand up and admit they’re against good government.

Proposition 54 is all about trying to make the state Legislature more transparent and thoughtful — less secretive and, too often, slimy.


The measure would do three things:

First, and most important, it would require any bill to be in print and accessible on the Internet for at least 72 hours before the Legislature could pass it. No more last-minute cut-and-paste jobs covertly created by lobbyists, a handful of legislative leaders and the governor.

The 72-hour mandate could be waived if the governor declared a public emergency — in the event of an earthquake or flood, for example — and the relevant legislative house approved the move by a two-thirds vote.

Second, the Legislature would be required to video-record all its public meetings and post them online within 24 hours. The Senate already does this, mostly, but the Assembly is inconsistent.

Third, citizens would be allowed to record a public meeting and use the audio-video for any purpose, including in a negative campaign ad.

So drowsy committee members would need to duck out of the hearing room to avoid being caught dozing after lunch.

“Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t pick your nose” should be the legislators’ motto, says Proposition 54 strategist Rick Claussen.


“What our elected representatives do on the public dais should be made public,” says Kathay Feng, who heads the watchdog organization California Common Cause, a strong Proposition 54 supporter.

This is the kind of measure that legendary reform Gov. Hiram Johnson and other California progressives had in mind when they established the state’s initiative system 105 years ago. The idea was to create direct democracy by permitting citizens to bypass the special interest-dominated state Capitol and exercise power at the ballot box.

It hasn’t quite worked that way, of course. Special interests themselves took over the initiative process and circumvented the Legislature. They pour obscene millions of dollars into jingoistic ads and play the role of circus barker for gullible voters.

But Proposition 54 is one of those measures no Legislature would ever pass — regardless of which party was in control — because it would weaken the power of leaders. They couldn’t jam a proposal through the Legislature under the radar at the last second.

“When I try to explain to people what happens at the end of a legislative session — and the very poor pieces of legislation that emerge — they’re shocked,” Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) told me three years ago when she sponsored a bill similar to Proposition 54. It was killed.

What commonly happens is an ugly 11th-hour “gut-and-amend.”

Some bill that has survived open committee hearings and a floor vote — just like the textbooks call for — is eviscerated and amended with entirely new content. Public scrutiny is avoided.

Neither the public nor most legislators have time to begin digesting the revamped bill before the voting deadline.

It’s bad for democracy and frequently leads to flawed legislation.

One example of a major bill that wasn’t concocted until the final day of this year’s legislative session was an appropriation of $900 million in pollution fee money. It was generated by the cap-and-trade program, which peddles permits to emit global-warming greenhouse gases.

“If you’re going to spend nearly a billion dollars of public money, it just seems like people should have a chance to know what it’s being spent on,” says Dan Carrigg, a lobbyist for the League of California Cities, which backs Proposition 54.

Updates from Sacramento »

“If a bill comes together and can’t stand three days of sunshine with a couple of public hearings, it might not be a good law.”

The state Democratic Party opposes the initiative, asserting on its website that Proposition 54 “provides special interests like tobacco, oil and drug companies with new powers to block timely legislative action” and “would increase state costs by millions.”

Balderdash. The estimated $1 million in annual costs for video recordings would come out of the Legislature’s existing budget.

The only person candid enough to really speak out against the measure is political consultant Steve Maviglio, a former Capitol staffer and onetime New Hampshire legislator.

“This just gums up the [legislative] process,” he says, “and at a time when most legislators are scared of lobbyists. They’re not going to be able to accomplish much, sitting there for three days while everyone is coming out of the woodwork at them.

“And it doesn’t get rid of gut-and-amend. It just gets rid of three days’ worth.”

The initiative was the brainchild of a former legislator, moderate Republican Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo. Its sole bankroller is Charles Munger Jr., a Palo Alto physicist and son of billionaire Charles Munger Sr., Warren Buffett’s investment partner.

Munger Jr. has spent tens of millions on government reforms — mainly stripping the Legislature of its self-serving redistricting power — and trying to elect moderate Republican lawmakers.

As for Proposition 54, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it best: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And in California’s Capitol — as in most states’ — there’s a lot to disinfect.

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