State budget transparency? You must be kidding.
After innumerable promises, the transparency pendulum has stunningly swung in the opposite direction. A fleeting single vote by the Legislature on the final state budget will be held sometime before midnight tonight, so the members of the two chambers can get paid. Sadly, the single vote will be the first and only public view of the final decisions on how the state will spend $92 billion over this next year.
Until recently legislators serving in state budget roles had five votes they had to record all done in open session. Votes were required in budget subcommittees, in the full committee, on the floor of either house, in a conference committee on the budget and finally, for the final version, on the floor of each chamber.
The public had an opportunity to hear the debate and legislators had a responsibility to record their "yes" or "no" decision on almost every line item in the final budget bill. Trailer bills were not reported to the floor unless they had been considered by both subcommittees and full committees and any member of the public had an opportunity to be heard at numerous stages in the process.
Not now. The public will have had an opportunity to comment only once, and then only on a very early version of state appropriations.
As a trustee of a nonprofit university, I have a high interest in one budget item Cal Grants, which serve college students who cannot otherwise afford to attend higher education. Thousands of current and prospective college students and their families are dependent on just a few lines in the state budget act. But, decisions on the Cal Grant item are being made entirely behind closed doors, and the only budget hearing on the primary item was a single subcommittee hearing a few months ago. The item was never voted on in any subcommittee, full committee or floor vote, and even the conference committee on the budget has been scuttled. The only recording that will occur on the Cal Grant, or any other budget line item, is a single vote, up or down, on a $92 billion expenditure plan.
Many years ago, I served as chief deputy director of the Department of Finance, and on behalf of the executive branch I had to testify dozens of times on the administration's position. We debated publicly in open session and the speakers of those days Bob Monagan, Bob Moretti, Leo McCarthy and Willie Brown would never have accepted a process that adopted a state expenditure plan without each member having their vote counted numerous times.
Until 2005, I participated in the Capitol process and, on behalf of public schools, worked on numerous state budgets and focused on state budget votes. Throughout those years the budget was never adopted without action by a subcommittee, full committee and the conference committee on the budget. The public was able to hear the debate and know the budget priorities of their elected officials. Not now!
Speaker Jesse Unruh had a terrible reputation for his iron-fisted control of the Legislature in the 1960s, but he was a national leader for legislative reform.
Even today, his imprint can be seen throughout the halls of our state's Capitol, but his reforms, mandating an open process, are being destroyed in today's budget turbulence. He may have been a control agent, but he cared about the state institution that he represented. Where are today's reformers? Isn't there a member of the leadership that understands the process is as important as the conclusion? Unfortunately, so far, the answer is "no."