Sausage Gets Made Today in Sacramento

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

If the good government types behind Proposition 31 want to get their sweeping reform initiative passed in November; they need to take a camera into the Legislature today and start filming.

With the two-year session coming to an end, legislators will be desperate to pass the flood of pending bills before the midnight deadline. Bills are discussed, deals are struck and last-minute changes are made, allowing complicated measures to whiz through the Assembly and the state Senate at the last minute, voted on by lawmakers who seldom have had the time – or even the chance — to read them.

It’s legislative sausage making at its ugliest.

And if legislators are often clueless about the details of the laws they’ll be voting in, where does that leave the hapless citizens of California, many of whom will wake up Saturday, check their newspaper or computer screen and learn for the first time what’s been done to them?

Take SB 1455 by state Senator Christine Kehoe. Until last Friday, it was a simple bill on alternative fuels. But that language was stripped out in a “gut-and-amend” process so that it now raises and extends until 2023 a bunch of air quality and environmental fees on drivers that originally were slated to sunset in 2015 and 2016.

Hearings on these revised bills are little more than a formality as they zoom to the floor for a vote. In the Assembly, an analysis of Kehoe’s bill didn’t make it to the Natural Resources Committee until Wednesday.

The key part of the analysis was the fiscal impact, which was listed as “unknown,” since it takes time to run the numbers. But legislators still will be asked to pass the bill, even though they don’t have any idea of what it will cost or how much money it will raise.

Then there’s the pension reform measure worked out between Gov. Brown and the Democratic leadership.

No one can complain that there wasn’t time to talk about pension reform, which has been number one of the state’s hit parade since Brown introduced his 12-point reform plan last October.

But it wasn’t until Tuesday evening that the governor and the Democrats put out a compromise bill that didn’t go nearly as far as the governor’s plan called for.

Plenty of people are unhappy with the bill, with some saying it goes too far and others worry that it doesn’t go far enough. Make this bill public last month and there’s time for legislators and voters to read it, respond to it and maybe even change it. But with the end of the session looming, the current pension reform plan is pretty much “take it or leave it.”

And as for the idea that the public’s business should be done in public? Well, that’s pretty much on the “leave it” side.

Prop. 31, which was put on the ballot by the government reform group California Forward, calls for a whole laundry list of changes in the way the Legislature does its business, many of them technical, complicated and controversial.

But one proposed reform that seems pretty simple is a requirement that no bill can be passed until it’s been in print and available to the public for three days. And, most importantly, that includes any amendments to the bill. If amendments get added, or parts of the bill are stripped out, that three-day clock starts running again.

No last minute changes. No late night shenanigans. No sneaking measures past bleary-eyed legislators.

Fred Silva, senior fiscal adviser for California Forward and someone who has spent the past 40 years in and around state government, put it best in a quote in one of the group’s blog posts.

There are two real important questions the state faces this week, Silva said.

First, “What’s going to happen in the Legislature?”

Second, and even more important, “What is the public going to know about what’s going to happen in the Legislature?”

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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