Within the next 25 days, the Legislature must pass the 2015-16 state budget. During the past two decades, the process by which the budget was developed and brought to a vote became less and less open and transparent. At one time, the budget had to be approved on the floor of each house before being sent to conference committee, and was open for any member to amend. Only the differences between the Senate and Assembly versions were the subject of the conference committee.

Since the passage of Proposition 25, the 2010ballot measure that allows the budget and trailer bills to be passed by a majority vote of the Legislature, the budget process has become even worse, and there has been an increase in the number of “budget trailer bills” with major policy issues that should be in stand-alone bills.

In a June 21, 2012 editorial, The Sacramento Bee said the “state budget process has become a sham,” and added that Proposition 25 had done nothing to increase transparency. Surprisingly, recent actions have violated the language of Proposition 25, as an unpublished court decision (see below) found that the Legislature passed budget trailer bills that,at the time budget passed in June, were identified only by number in the budget, and were devoid of content.

The budget process cries out for reform. Calls for budget process reform have come from a variety of sources –some legislators, the press, interested parties and groups, including CalTax. Every year, there seems to be a horror story about the Legislature voting on a budget trailer bill in the wee hours of the morning, before the bill is even in print.

First, let’s acknowledge the positives in the current development of the budget and trailer bills. The budget subcommittees in each house provide analyses of issues in the budget, and conduct public hearings on the issues. In addition, the budget conference committee is open to the public. Proposition 25 also encourages passage of an on-time budget (by June 15).

Yet, the final budget and the budget trailer bills often are cobbled together in private meetings, and brand-new issues are placed into bills via last-minute amendments. Lawmakers and the public have little time, if any, to review the end product.

Even worse, secrecy sometimes has been the intent of past legislative leaders who didn’t want the public – or even other legislators – to know what was in the budget and related trailer bills before they passed.

Actions speak louder than words, and because of actions in the past four years, key reforms should be enshrined in the California Constitution. However, each of the reforms suggested below could be implemented this year without constitutional or statutory requirements. With new leadership this year in both the Assembly and Senate, there is hope that they will break from their predecessors’ policies and make an effort to improve transparency.

Budget process reforms for consideration:

The Legislature has been pushing for public transparency for several years, from requiring that local governments adhere to the Public Records Act regardless of costs, to forcing private businesses to disclose certain tax and expenditure information. If transparency is good enough for those entities, shouldn’t some of the most important laws enacted in each session of the Legislature (the budget and trailer bills) have similar transparency? There is an opportunity to make change now and it should be raised.

Originally published in the CalTaxReports.