The timing could not have been more perfect.
As dozens of state budget “trailer bills” were being given their first public airing Monday, in another part of the Capitol legislators were mulling whether the public should be given more time to review legislation before it is passed.
Over the years, trailer bills, which are supposed to make changes in law to implement the budget’s financial decisions, have morphed into very sneaky vehicles for politicians to do all sorts of things that have little or no connection to the budget.
That’s been particularly true ever since voters decided to reduce the required vote on the budget – and its trailer bills – from two-thirds to a simple majority.
The Capitol’s dominant Democrats have exploited the parliamentary loophole shamelessly, even inserting token $2,000 appropriations in some bills to claim attachment to the budget.
Finally, after years of criticism, the Legislature cleaned up its act, more or less, by posting trailer bills on the internet at least a few days before their enactment. But the potential for abuse remains – and it’s not confined to trailer bills.
Many other measures have been drafted in the dead of night, their contents known only to lobbyists and other insiders, and then passed before anyone had a chance to object.
Apologists for procedural abuse have offered a strange, and obviously self-serving, rationalization – that sometimes sneakiness is the only way to get good legislation passed before evil opponents can marshal forces to kill it.
Minority Republicans have routinely introduced legislation to require a 72-hour waiting period before a final vote on legislation. And routinely, Democrats have killed it.
Ultimately, Charles Munger Jr., a wealthy Stanford University physicist, joined forces with Sam Blakeslee, a former Republican state lawmaker, to sponsor a 2016 ballot measure, now awaiting signature verification, to impose the 72-hour period. And in response, Democratic legislators ginned up their own 72-hour measure, Senate Constitutional Amendment 14.
They’re not precisely the same, and Munger appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday to say SCA 14’s “rather complicated language” could still allow legislators to avoid the 72-hour notice.
He described it as “an illusion of reform” and an attempt to persuade him and Blakeslee to drop their measure.
“This attempt is not a success,” Munger said, vowing to proceed with his measure.
SCA 14’s language is, indeed, complicated and difficult to interpret, but its author, Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, insisted that it is “a clear 72-hour requirement.” And the committee approved it on a 5-2 vote.
Whether SCA 14 goes before voters depends on whether at least a few Republicans support it, since it requires a two-thirds legislative vote, with a June 30 deadline to place measures on the November ballot.
If both measures pass, the one with more votes would prevail. But if voters are confused by two measures on the same subject, both could be rejected and we’d be back where we started on making the legislative process more transparent.