Rushed California bills compromise disclosure
Ryan Summerlin April 9, 2012
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – Among the many bills rushed through when lawmakers passed the state budget last year was one protecting teachers if the state had to resort to automatic spending cuts in the middle of the school year.
The bill prohibited school administrators from furloughing teachers unless their union agreed, and banned them from laying off teachers during the fiscal year, making it virtually impossible for districts to save significant amounts of money. Although it had the potential for severe consequences, the bill was made public just one hour before the vote was taken and passed at 11 p.m.
Dead-of-night votes on rushed legislation such as the teacher-protection bill are common during budget season and toward the end of the legislative session, forcing lawmakers to vote on major issues with little or no time to read the substance of the legislation. Many Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, defend the practice as a necessary evil, but others say the process needs to be changed.
Several attempts to give the public at least 24 hours to examine bills before lawmakers vote have failed, but a Republican lawmaker is trying again this year.
“A bill to let sunshine in has been kept in the dark since 2007,” said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, who has proposed similar constitutional amendments twice previously. “Whether you agree or not with the policies that are being voted on, it’s simply good government to have the opportunity for everybody who’s interested to read a bill.”
Assembly and Senate rules already require that bills be read on three different days before either house can take a final vote. But lawmakers use parliamentary maneuvers, including hollowing out existing bills and filling them with new legislation, to get around the requirement.
Almost every floor rule can be waived by a simple majority vote, another loophole that can be used for developing bills on the fly.
The practices in the Legislature differ from those required of city councils, county boards of supervisors and local school districts in California.
The state’s Brown Act requires local governments to post agendas 72 hours before meetings. Elected officials are allowed to add items only if a two-thirds majority approves and the matter is urgent.
By comparison, the Assembly took its first vote on the 2010-11 budget before the full 800-page bill was posted online or made public at the Assembly clerk’s office.
Lawmakers rushed through several hastily written bills last year. Among these were bills that banned future initiatives from being placed on the June primary ballot, accelerated development plans for an NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles and protected farmworker unions against election misconduct.
Many Democrats say last-minute legislation is sometimes necessary to address issues that develop after the February deadline for introducing bills and to pass bills they consider important but politically unpopular.
Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, said Republicans are stoking the debate over rushed bills to create a smoke screen about the legislative process when what they really oppose are the Democrats’ policies.
He said Republicans are not thinking of the public in trying to require a 24-hour waiting period. Instead, Calderon said they would only use that time to gin up opposition and punish lawmakers who approve good but politically risky policies.
“A 24-hour reading period often gets used for mischief,” said Calderon, the longest-serving lawmaker in the Capitol. “Democrats are the majority party, and they have the responsibility to vote for things sometimes that are not popular with the public.”
Jeffries’ proposal, ACA1, would require lawmakers to give three-days’ notice before taking up any legislation and make bills public at least 24 hours before voting. A related measure, ACA2, would ban late-night legislative sessions except in cases of natural disaster.
Republican minority leaders in both houses support mandatory consideration periods. In March, Republicans orchestrated a protest of a parliamentary gimmick that allows lawmakers to introduce shell bills that will be used later in the year for budget provisions and other matters.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, defended the practice of developing some budget bills at the last minute. He said lawmakers sometimes need to take quick action to prevent interest groups from mobilizing to defeat legislation they oppose.
Democrats also say Republicans are still angry about the passage of Proposition 25 in 2010, which largely made them irrelevant to the budget process by reducing the legislative vote requirement for budgets from two-thirds to a simple majority.
“I think they’re scrambling for more leverage,” Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield, D-Sherman Oaks, said of the attempt to prohibit last-minute bills.
A few other states have passed constitutionally-mandated reading periods for all bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Hawaii, the Legislature must make bills available in their final form for at least 48 hours before voting. Michigan prohibits lawmakers from voting on bills that have not been public for at least five days. And in Florida, lawmakers must give the public 72 hours to consider all general appropriation bills.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said he supports the concept of requiring more time for lawmakers to consider bills, saying it would allow for more thoughtful consideration of last-minute amendments. He declined to comment on Jeffries’ bill.
Policy experts and good government groups have long called for these kinds of transparency measures. Like Jeffries, they argue that bills that cannot withstand a day of debate should not be made law.
The bipartisan group California Forward has gathered more than half the signatures it needs to place a 72-hour reading period for bills on the November ballot, said the group’s executive director, Jim Mayer. He said lawmakers are unlikely to pass such a measure on their own.
“Many of them know that it’s good policy, but it would make their lives harder,” he said.