Last month, California voters approved, by a nearly 2-1 margin, Proposition 54, which if faithfully followed would shine some light on the Capitol’s dark corners.
Specifically, it would require any bill to be in print and published on the internet for 72 hours before facing final votes.
It’s aimed at the common practice, particularly in the closing hours of each year’s session, of writing bills in secret and then revealing their presence just hours, and sometimes just minutes, before legislators vote.
If anything, it has become even more blatant in recent years, ever since voters reduced the legislative vote margin on the state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, thus allowing majority Democrats to have their way without obtaining Republican votes.
Democrats have often written major changes in public policy behind closed doors and then characterized them as “budget trailer bills” that could be enacted with minimal notice and take effect immediately, sometimes inserting token $2,000 appropriations.
Democratic defenders of this very undemocratic system have argued that secrecy is needed to prevent special interest lobbyists from thwarting much-needed legislation, but that’s just self-serving rationalization.
In fact, most of the “mushroom bills” – so dubbed because they grow in the dark, nurtured in excrement – are themselves giveaways of one kind or another to special interests with influence on the majority, such as public employee unions.
The practice has drawn consistent criticism from the political media, which must play cat-and-mouse games with legislators over last-minute bills.
Former Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen and others, including some Democrats, sought to reform the process, but were shut down by Democratic leaders.
Eventually, however, those leaders and mushroom bill beneficiaries had to confront the issue on the ballot. Wealthy Republican donor Charles Munger Jr., who has been at the forefront of several legislative reform campaigns, put up most of the money to qualify and pass Proposition 54.
Its potential effect already has surfaced. Last month, as legislative leaders toyed with the notion of calling a lame-duck session to deal with financing transportation improvements, one of the factors was how Proposition 54 would affect its timing.
It had the effect of squeezing the potential time frame for a session by a few days, and thus contributed to a decision not to call legislators back to Sacramento.
It’s impossible to legislate morality, of course, so the measure’s passage creates something of a dilemma for the Legislature’s Democrats.
They must decide whether to fully honor the demonstrated desire of California voters for more transparency, or conjure up ways to obey Proposition 54 only in the most technical fashion while evading its obvious intent and conducting business as usual.
They could possibly adopt the latter attitude. Like all laws, Proposition 54 contains some potential ambiguity, such as whether it applies to any floor vote on a bill in either house, or just the final votes, which often occur in the final hours of the session, or whether “technical amendments” are exempt from the 72-hour requirement.
Were the Legislature to take a loose view of the measure, it might exempt “technical amendments,” such as correcting a misspelled word or misplaced comma, but if that passes legal muster, then we probably would see a steadily widening definition of the term – much as the “budget trailer bill” loophole has been exploited.
It is, in other words, a test of politicians’ respect for their voters.