GOP Lawmakers Push for More State Budget Transparency

Katy Grimes
FlashReport Senior Correspondent

In 2012, the state Legislature passed 80 budget “spot” bills — empty bills with no details. Such measures just sit on a shelf and await last-minute bill language, then are put forward for late-night passage on the last day of the budget session.

These are often the most controversial bills of each session. When lawmakers use them to avoid the legislative process, which requires committee hearings for all bills, it is clear that their goal is to avoid transparency and public involvement.

This has long been the norm. It has arguably been encouraged since the 2010 adoption of Propositions 25 and 26 into the state Constitution, allowing the Legislature to pass a budget on a simple majority vote and requiring a  supermajority vote to pass fees and taxes by the Legislature, respectively. Lawmakers routinely take major policy changes and potential tax increases and drop them in trailer bill language.

Gorell and other Assembly Republicans target ‘waste, fraud and abuse’

To counter this practice, Assembly Republicans are pushing budget reform and  transparency measures.

ACA 11 by Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, is intended to open up the budget process to lawmakers and the public.

“Waste, fraud and abuse is rampant,” Gorell said at a recent meeting with the press. “The Legislature has significantly abandoned its responsibility. This gets us going back in the right direction.”

ACA 11 would:

* require budget bills to be available to the public for at least three days before passage;

* limit the definition of a budget bill to one passed each year;

* mandate that trailer bills be identified in the main budget bill, and that they be in their final form in order to be passed;

* require the Legislature to convene a one-month session in July of even-numbered years to conduct program oversight and review all state programs on a rotating basis.

“There have been 1,850 bills introduced this cycle,” Gorell said. “Term limits have made the Legislature bill-centric. By mandating one month out of 24 for oversight, this forcibly requires all members of the Legislature to comply.”

Additionally, in the event of a fiscal emergency declaration by the governor, ACA 11 would require the Legislature to pass bills to address that emergency within 45 days. If the emergency bills are not passed within the 45-day deadline, the governor would be authorized to make cuts to the general fund by executive order.

Lack of transparency in the budget process

Advocates of more transparency in state government are very critical of the spot-bill process.  Recently, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation gave California a “D” grade on its transparency report card on how it made legislative information available to the public.

California received an “F” grade when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fourth annual report of its kind by the CALPIRG Education Fund.

Oddly, Gov. Jerry Brown shut down California’s old transparency website in 2011. Information on state contracts is now managed by the Department of General Services eProcurement branch in a fox-guarding-the-henhouse scenario.

In addition to ACA 11, several other Assembly bills address the lack of transparency in state government:

ACA 1 by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, would hold unelected agencies accountable for the regulations they create.

AB 289 by Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, would require the governor to submit a report listing the state’s key liabilities along with his budget proposal each year. These liabilities would include unfunded pension obligations and infrastructure debt, which are often glossed over in annual budget debates.

Passage of AB 54 by Gorrell, would allow ACA 4 from 2009 by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, part of a budget deal with Republicans, to the June 3, 2014 ballot. ACA4 is now scheduled for the November 2014 ballot but is anticipated to be postponed again.

Gorell said he has spoken with some Democratic lawmakers about the need to change a flawed process. “Budget reform is not alien to Democrats. But it’s an important vote for Republicans to play this year.”

Gorrell added, “Strange things happen in this building.”

Crossposted on CalWatchdog

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