Editorial: Lawmakers can’t brag about a transparent legislative session

Published: Sunday, Sep. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am

This year’s legislative session was different from many in the past. The budget was approved blessedly early, so state finances didn’t intrude into the September deliberations. With control of both houses, Democrats and their labor allies got much of what they wanted, and they got it early.

The upside – possibly the only one – is that state employee unions didn’t use the final day of session to sneak through an onerous raid on the state treasury, as they have in the past.

In other ways, however, this session was sadly familiar. Too many bills were introduced. Too many were passed. The Senate and Assembly – despite being led by members of the same party – engaged in their usual cross-chamber pirate antics. Bills were taken hostage, sometimes for good reason, other times for mere deal-making. Several that got out late did so only because one chamber or the other agreed to terms of their release. We may not learn of those terms for weeks, assuming we ever do.

What else was familiar? Transparency was trampled. In the final hours, bills were gutted and amended, force-fed like a French goose and voted out with barely a glance by lawmakers doing the voting. Driver’s licenses for some illegal immigrants? Check. A big change to the California Environmental Quality Act, at least for Sacramento and its arena? Check. A gut-and-amend bill to revamp marijuana laws started moving late, and was mercifully sidetracked.

In an indication of the tension between the two Democratic leaders, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez thanked the governor for his work on the prison deal and the Republican leaders of both houses but notably neglected to mention Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Steinberg did thank Pérez.

Pérez finished the year with one significant accomplishment, an increase in college scholarships. Steinberg emerged with bragging rights over gun control legislation, dental care for kids, more equitable and flexible funding for schools and, of course, the CEQA exemption he had not-so-wisely promised to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

At Steinberg’s urging, the Legislature took what could turn out to be significant steps to help severely mentally ill people, making clear that counties can use money from the 2004 Mental Health Services Act to pay for intensive outpatient care.

Noteworthy achievements included approving a minimum wage increase to $10, despite business opposition, and taking a step toward allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The Legislature took steps to regulate hydraulic fracturing – going far beyond any state in the country in putting safeguards on this form of oil and gas production.

Among the deals that didn’t get done was a broader overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act. Business groups ended up empty-handed, unable to get to language that would curb abusive litigation by seeking to use CEQA to extract project concessions.

Lawmakers failed to approve legislation regulating medical marijuana, leaving the issue for 2014 or perhaps an initiative in 2016. Democrats held two-thirds majorities, but did not raise significant taxes, as some feared.

One of the more far-reaching gun control measures – a bill by Sen. Kevin de León’s to require ammunition buyers to undergo background checks – stalled, but will re-emerge next year.

Lawmakers did approve several gun bills, although Brown is less enthusiastic about gun measures than some of his fellow Democrats. Bills whose fate is uncertain include one to ban the use of lead ammunition to protect wildlife and one by Steinberg to ban semiautomatic guns that can accept detachable magazines.

Bills that Brown should veto include SB7, by Steinberg, that would deny state construction funds to charter cities that do not adhere to the state’s prevailing wage law, and AB1373, by Pérez, which would increase costs on cities and counties by doubling the death-benefit statute of limitations for public safety employees.

So now the lobbying begins on a governor who often seems impervious to lobbying. Since that may be a wasted effort, lawmakers might want to spend the time reflecting on how they might have made this a more productive and transparent legislative session.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board



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