Charles Munger Jr. explains his legislative transparency initiative
The question of how to spend several hundred million dollars generated by California’s cap-and-trade program to reduce heat-trapping emissions had been the subject of talks at the Capitol for much of 2016, with still no agreement as the two-year legislative session came to a close in August.
Then came a deal. Within 24 hours, amendments became public and both houses approved Assembly Bill 1613 and Senate Bill 859, sending them on to Gov. Jerry Brown.
“The ink on the bill is barely even dry,” Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, complained to colleagues before lawmakers voted along party lines to approve AB 1613, going on to invoke Otto von Bismarck’s oft-quoted comparison of sausage making and the legislative process. “Even the sausages would be embarrassed by the appalling lack of transparency that we’re showing in considering this bill.”
The cap-and-trade measures were among dozens of bills that, legislative records show, moved quickly from amendments to floor votes during the final weeks of session. Yet such rapid turnarounds soon could be prohibited by the state Constitution.
Proposition 54 on next week’s ballot would require legislation to be in print for 72 hours before final votes in both houses, as well as mandate videos of all legislative hearings to be posted on the Internet within 24 hours.
Supporters of the measure, placed on the ballot by wealthy Republican activist Charles Munger Jr., say it would improve a process that often keeps the public in the dark about a bill’s contents, as well as rank-and-file lawmakers.
“It’s hard to argue against a little bit of transparency,” said Dan Carrigg, the lead lobbyist for the League of California Cities, which has endorsed the proposition. “Either we’re all in on democracy, which means having an informed public, … or we’re not.”
Most of the legislative process is “extremely transparent,” Carrigg added, pointing to rules requiring bills to be in print for 30 days after their introduction. Procedural shortcuts become more common around deadlines for the state budget and other legislation.
During those times, chasing down late amendments and deciphering their implications before lawmakers vote can become an all-consuming task for lobbyists.
The yes-on-54 campaign had spent about $21 million through Oct. 22, filings last week show, while picking up support from groups ranging from the California Chamber of Commerce to Common Cause.
The California Democratic Party opposes the measure and has given about $27,000 worth of mailers, door hangers and other in-kind donations to no-on-54 efforts.
Several prominent Democrats nevertheless have endorsed the measure, including Controller Betty Yee, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Yet among members of the Legislature’s Democratic majority, only Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and termed-out state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, publicly back Proposition 54.
It’s hard to argue against a little bit of transparency.
Dan Carrigg of League of California Cities
Opponents warn that the constitutional amendment will gum up the legislative process, making it easier for powerful special interests to kill worthwhile legislation. Fragile compromises, they worry, could get picked apart as groups pore over the details.
Ballot arguments by critics highlight a February 2009 budget package that kept the state from running out of cash. With no votes to spare, lawmakers approved legislation that contained deep spending cuts and temporary tax increases to close an estimated $42 billion budget shortfall. Much of the package became public shortly before lawmakers voted.
“If Prop. 54 was in place, California might well have gone bankrupt,” opponents wrote in the voter information guide.
State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-San Diego, who led the Senate budget committee at the time, said the 2009 deal could have unraveled if it had been in print for as long as Proposition 54 requires. Democrats faced intense pressure against cutting school, health and social programs. Republicans thought to be open to raising taxes risked a backlash on the airwaves and online.
“It may seem short to the rest of the world,” Ducheny said of the proposed 72-hour rule. Not so in the Capitol, she said. “How much time do you want to give teachers unions and health care workers to organize against a decision?”
Supporters of Proposition 54 include the California Chamber of Commerce, Common Cause and Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento.
Proposition 54 requires bills to be posted on the internet for at least 72 hours, and not three days, to eliminate any confusion about how long the latest versions of bills need to be public before votes. The only exception would be if the governor declares a state of emergency and two-thirds of the house considering a bill votes to pass it more quickly.
That wouldn’t cover budget crises of the types confronting the state during the last recession, yes-on-54 spokeswoman Mary Ellen Grant said. But the 72-hour requirement, if it had existed, possibly could have been lifted during California’s energy crisis in 2000 and 2001 if then-Gov. Gray Davis deemed it an emergency and legislative supermajorities agreed.
Proposition 54 could have significant effects on how the Legislature does its business. Of the bills that passed either house in August, legislative records show that at least 50 had amendments posted within three days of the floor vote in the respective house. Some passed with strong bipartisan support, while others went through along party lines.
Those include a measure to impose new fees on lead-acid batteries to pay for cleanups and another bill to create a new program to pay for local climate-change projects. Some bills had undergone wholesale revisions, a parliamentary maneuver known as “gut and amend.”
In an August interview, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said his house had taken steps to hold down the number of late amendments, particularly gut-and-amends.
“Each year that we’re here we’re more and more cognizant of how some of the stuff we do looks,” Rendon said.
Derek Cressman, a former Common Cause director and Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said he thinks Proposition 54 will produce better legislation.
“The solution can’t possibly be a process that allows legislative insiders to slip something by lobbyists,” Cressmna said. “I think it’s reasonable for legislators to be asked to have the courage to stand behind their ideals.”