Legislative transparency, good government and the ability of the legislature to get things done are issues voters will consider if the “California Legislature Transparency Act” initiative makes it to the ballot. A number of legislators don’t want to see it there but understand the power of the transparency issue, of which they often spend mountains of time extolling. A plan to derail the initiative with a substitute measure should be taken with a cup full of skepticism.
The initiative would require a bill to be in print and online for 72 hours before it can be voted on. The provision is intended to counter the all-too-often used practice of last moment gutting a bill on one subject that has been through committee hearings and substituting an entirely different law with no time for legislators to consider it before a vote. In addition, the measure would require video recording of open legislative meetings to be placed online.
In order to prevent the law from being sealed into the state constitution, but to satisfy the public who believe they should have time to respond to what their legislators are proposing, the legislature could consider statutory language to achieve some of the initiative’s goals.
Under a recent change in initiative law, the proponents of this particular initiative, Charles Munger, Jr. and former state senator Sam Blakeslee, could then pull the initiative before it comes before voters if they agree with a legislative alternative.
The proponents ought to be cautious about such a move. Anything the legislature can do, it can undo.
Just recently, there has been a backlash against a senate move to allow fundraising during the period when senators vote on bills. The senate had prohibited that action after some of their colleagues were charged with serious crimes dealing with improper influence involving legislation.
Senators had excuses for making the change – fundraising advantages members of the assembly enjoyed because of the senate self-imposed restriction — but the point for Munger and Blakeslee is that they saw the senate reverse course on a ‘good government’ issue. It could happen again.
There is earnest debate over the ability of legislators to reach compromise on tough issues under the glare of the spotlight and the pressure imposed by special interests.
I touched on this a few years ago in reviewing a discussion I had with former U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III on this issue. As I wrote at the time: He pointed to the 1787 constitutional convention in which the doors were locked with reporters and visitors barred from convention sessions. A great document was the result of the convention. Stevenson said when doors are open it’s the lobbyists and the money that comes through the doors making it more difficult to get the work of government done.
That experience of 229 years ago is worth noting but we have witnessed the prevalent ill-use of the gut and amend procedure too often of late. Hearing the complaint of legislators saying that they wither before the onslaught of special interests makes one recall the long-ago advice of former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh: “If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and vote against ‘em anyway, you don’t belong in the Legislature.”
While the way he said it might not fit our era, the message of standing up to special interests still applies.
It’s necessary to allow citizens time to comment on proposed legislative actions.