Let’s face it. California’s budget process has devolved into a bad joke. The record amount of spending coupled with massive expenditures for wasteful, pork-barrel projects is bad enough. But the more insidious problem is the lack of budget transparency. This is not the way it is supposed to be.

As usual, Sacramento politicians are patting themselves on the back for passing an “on time” budget. True, the main budget bill was passed on June 13, two days before the constitutional deadline. But citizens would be mistaken to believe that the passage of the budget bill completes the budget process.

Ever since 2010, it has become common to enact politically motivated legislation as so-called budget “trailer bills” as a means to avoid meaningful analysis and public hearings.

What happened in 2010 that caused the budget process to be corrupted was the passage of Proposition 25, entitled the “On-Time Budget Act of 2010.”

Voters were told three things about Prop. 25: Budgets would be passed on time; it would increase budget transparency; and that legislators would forfeit their pay if the budget was not passed on time. All three were lies. Moreover, because the primary goal of Prop. 25 was to reduce the vote threshold for passage of the budget bill from two-thirds to a simple majority, it deprives the minority party of any meaningful input.

Here are the three ways Prop. 25 perverted the budget process. First, since 2010, dozens of bills have been designated as “budget related” which have nothing to do with the budget. These bills frequently have some token appropriation for a nominal amount in a weak effort to say the legislation is somehow related to the budget. All political insiders are fully cognizant that this is a complete con.

Second, a related abuse by the majority party has been to use the “trailer bill” label to avoid other constitutional requirements for legislation that would otherwise require a two-thirds vote. The most common abuses involve bypassing state constitutional provisions that require a two-thirds vote for general fund appropriations and the application of the “urgency clause” for bills to take effect immediately.

Third, as noted previously, the majority party has succeeded in redefining an “on-time budget” for purposes of getting their paychecks. This has led to the bizarre situation of legislation identified as “budget bills” being enacted nearly a year after the June 15th deadline, despite legislators having collected their paychecks in the meantime.

There have been innumerable abuses but a few stand out as particularly egregious. In 2017, then-Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, was the subject of a recall election because he cast the deciding vote for the infamous gas and car tax increase. The Legislature changed the rules for recall elections, enacting Senate Bill 96 as a last-minute budget “trailer” bill. Although the move succeeded in changing the date of the recall election, it wasn’t enough to save Newman. 

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has had some success in fighting these abuses. HJTA filed suit over a “budget trailer bill” that moved Gov. Jerry Brown’s huge tax increase proposal, Proposition 30, from the eighth position on the ballot order to number one. While HJTA ultimately won on the legal issue, the decision arrived too late to impact the election and, not surprisingly, Proposition 30 passed. What is really needed is a new constitutional amendment to slam the door on these budget shams. There is an old saying that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” In California, applying moral equivalence to the budget process with sausage making is a profound insult to sausage making.

Originally at the Press-Telegram.