California legislators are steadfast champions of transparency in government – until it comes to themselves.
If applied to local governments and other state agencies, the Legislature says taxpayers and voters have a right to attend open meetings where decisions are made, access public documents and otherwise enjoy the protections of “sunshine laws.”
But as the next week will doubtless demonstrate, lawmakers reserve the right to draft major sections of the state budget in secret and bring it to a vote with little or no time for review, even by members of the minority party.
Moreover, they will push through dozens of budget “trailer bills” that will contain major changes in policy, some of which will have little or nothing to do with the budget, virtually at a moment’s notice.
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Why? Because they have exempted themselves from sunshine laws applied to other branches and levels of government, and because they are oblivious to criticism.
Some apologists for the secrecy claim that it’s needed to enact good governmental policies that would otherwise be thwarted by special interests. In fact, however, the sneakiness is largely to do the bidding of interest groups.
Two years ago, the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled that it was illegal for the Legislature to pass supposed trailer bills weeks, or even months, after the budget itself was enacted. That, however, was nothing more than a speed bump in the Legislature’s drive to do the public’s business in semi-secrecy.
This year, the Republican leader of the Assembly, Kristin Olsen, introduced a constitutional amendment that would, if adopted, curb some of the Legislature’s open government abuses, not only on the budget but other legislation.
Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 would require bills to be in print for 72 hours before passage by either house and allow bills to be heard by committees after their contents had been available on the Internet for 15 days. It would allow the waiting periods to be waived in real emergencies.
But, true to form, the Assembly Budget Committee buried ACA 1 without a vote, putting it on the “suspense file,” where it will die of old age.
Tellingly, the committee’s supposed “analysis” was a lengthy defense of the current system, repeating the old saw that “adding new time requirements may actually strengthen special interests’ ability to upset legislative agreements and harm the already condensed budget process.”
Olsen’s proposal is quite reasonable. It would, if enacted, simply require the Legislature to adhere to some – but certainly not all – of the open government processes it requires other state agencies and local governments to follow.
In fact, if anything, it falls short. It would, for instance, still allow majorities of both houses to meet in so-called “caucuses” to decide the fate of bills, even though such meetings are illegal in local government.