The good old days of secret budgeting are back and the primary victim is a transparent government.

There was a time, over forty years ago when the final state budget was written in secret. The final budget deal was hammered out in a secret conference held in the Senate Lounge. The bipartisan group that included the chair and vice chairs of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committees met in secret with the Director of Finance and the Legislative Analyst to craft a budget deal thatwould be considered and sent to the Governor for signature. A deal was struck so that the governor and the participants got what they wanted. One member,Senator Randolph Collier who chaired of the Senate Finance Committee, was famous for getting perks in the budget that benefited his district.

The entire legislative process suffered from the lack of transparency.

But by early 1970s the Senate and the Assembly had enough of this insider game and brought in new leadership. In short order they changed the rules of the budget game by requiring that the budget conference committee meet and vote in public.  Major differences between the two houses and with the Governor were discussed in a public process that involved the Governor’s representatives and the non-partisan legislative analyst.

For those who follow California budget-making it is important to note that for most of the last 40 years, when the budget conference committee seemed stuck on an issue that divided the houses and the administration, it was the Legislative Analyst that often proposed a compromise that moved the process forward. The conference committee was where they could publicly air differences and allow for the Legislative Analyst to offer opportunities for resolving those differences.

But, sadly, it seems like the good old days are back.  Although the Senate and Assembly Budget Committee held a hearing on Tuesday on the Democrat’s view of the final budget, it was a hearing that normally would have been held in May – laying the groundwork for a conference committee to work out differences between the two houses.

In the end, the Democratic legislative leaders and the Governor will work on a final budget – the contents of which are likely to be unknown until just before the vote on the budget on Friday, June 15.  The public forum of the Budget Conference Committee, which was a modest step toward a transparent process, has disappeared. There is no benefit of a public discussion over important differences between the Governor and the Legislature even with the majority Democrats controlling the legislative process.  In addition, what used to be referred to as the Big Five, the Governor and the Majority and Minority leaders, is now the Big Three.

At a time when Californians are looking at major policy changes that will impact public services in education, health and social services and criminal justice, it is not enough to simply answer the problem of less transparency with “Trust us.”

The California Forward Action Fund has proposed a constitutional amendment that will bring more transparency to the budget making process. The Government Performance and Accountability Act is designed to increase transparency by requiring the budget process be open to the public and that the product of this process be available to the public before it is approved. This gives the public an opportunity to judge the product of the budget process and insure that the funds are spent well and wisely.

It would require a two-house conference committee begin meeting on May 1st.  The California Constitution requires that “the proceedings of each house and the committees thereof shall be open and public.” It also requires the budget agreement and accompanying legislation must be available to the public 3 days before final passage.

This is the kind of transparency Californians are looking for and this measure will help us reopen what should be the public process of developing and adopting spending plans for the state of California.