“Stop me before I cave again.”
That seems to be the rationale of California legislators who have no intention of ending the sneaky, sordid practice of “gut and amend,” where a bill is introduced on one subject and then months later has its original language stripped out and magically becomes a bill on something else altogether.
This usually happens in the waning days of the session when the completely revised bill can be jammed through committee hearings and past both houses of the Legislature without most people – including many of those voting for it – really sure what that bill actually does.
And that’s a good thing, legislators say.
Democratic state Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis and Republican Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen of Modesto have introduced identical measures that would require all but emergency bills to be in print for 72 hours before they could be voted on.
Now both bills are constitutional amendments that will only go on the ballot with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, which no way, no how, is going to happen.
Still, to read the Assembly’s legislative analysis of Olsen’s bill is to weep for California.
Requiring a bill to be in print for three days before it can be acted upon “can allow the resolve for action to dissipate and special interests can exert pressure to block carefully crafted agreements. … the waiting period allows courage and willpower to be undermined by second thoughts and doubts,” the analysts’ said.
To translate: “There’s no way a legislator can be expected to do what he believes is right if a lobbyist has a couple of days to work on him.”
That’s a mighty far cry from the late Assembly Speaker Jesse’s Unruh’s old admonition to rookie legislators on lobbyists: “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and still vote against them, you don’t belong here.”
The analysts also reminded members of the budget subcommittee that “after a lengthy debate and numerous redrafts, the final version of the Declaration of Independence was printed on July 1, 1776 and adopted the next day.”
Californians can be forgiven if they don’t see the resemblance between the Declaration of Independence and last year’s SB 1040, a measure that started out as a pension bill before morphing into a repeal of a fire prevention fee.
Besides, “while this measure has the admirable goal of increasing transparency, California has a relatively transparent legislative process … (and) adding new time requirements may actually strengthen special interests ability to upset legislative agreements.”
In other words, if a handful of legislators can’t meet behind closed doors and sneak a bill past those unsuspecting lobbyists, nothing would ever get done in Sacramento. And not letting the public know the public’s business is a small price to pay.
Olsen’s measure died when the subcommittee declined to take it up.
For decades, newspaper editorial writers, good government groups, public interest organizations and even a few legislators have railed against “gut and amend,” but nothing ever happens. While the idea of reform is a wonderful thing that everyone is for, the reality of reform is something else altogether.
That’s why state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg can say he’s generally for a three-day rule as long as it has an exemption for urgent matters, carefully not specifying what, exactly, can be considered urgent.
But the real reason legislators will never put a ban on “gut and amend” on the ballot is a simple one: If it gets on the ballot, it wins.
There’s just too much logic behind it for most voters, who probably don’t see any reason legislators shouldn’t have enough time to actually read the bills they’re voting for and learn the details of measures that could affect California for decades.
Of course these actual voters don’t have years of experience with life in the Sacramento fishbowl and are naïve enough to believe the people they elect have enough strength of character to vote for what they believe is best for their state, regardless of what lobbyists or special interests may want.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.