One of the more interesting – as well as significant – episodes in Capitol lore occurred in the early 1970s when redrawing legislative districts imperiled a long-serving state senator, Randolph Collier.
Collier, a conservative Democrat from Yreka, chaired the Senate Finance Committee and wielded almost total control of the state budget.
He and his Assembly counterpart – Willie Brown for many years – would secretly write a budget each year and present it as a fait accompli.
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“We could do anything,” Brown later wrote in his autobiography. “We penciled in a hospital there, deleted a park here, and changed outlays all around…”
However, in 1974, Collier went too far. Worried about re-election, he loaded up the budget with new parks for his newly drawn district along California’s North Coast.
Liberal senators, who had long chafed at Collier’s autocratic reign over budgets and major legislation, pounced, terming his actions “park barrel.”
The budget was rejected and Collier was ousted as Finance Committee chairman. Two years later, he lost his seat to a liberal Republican (yes, Virginia, they once existed).
Subsequently, the sun shone on the budget process, albeit only for a decade or so, before it went private again, with final budgets written privately by the “Big 5” – the governor and the Legislature’s Democratic and Republican leaders – and then quickly enacted.
Meanwhile, another aspect emerged – “trailer bills.” Originally merely legal changes to implement the budget, they eventually evolved into sneaky vehicles for making far-reaching changes in policy that bypassed the usual legislative process.
The sneakiness quotient increased further when voters, at the behest of Democrats and their allies, changed the legislative vote requirement for budgets (and trailer bills) from two-thirds to a simple majority, which sped up negotiations as it froze out Republicans.
For the last half-decade, final budgets have been written by the Big 3 – the governor and Democratic leaders – and trailer bills have been shamelessly used to bypass public notice on major changes of law, often on matters that have little or no connection to the budget.
Last November, voters reacted by passing Proposition 54, which requires 72-hour notice before final votes on any bills. While the Assembly’s implementation rules don’t give it full respect – an issue that may wind up in the courts – it should shine some light on what’s happening.
However, it should be only a first step toward restoring some semblance of accountability for the budget process, as Dave Doerr, a longtime legislative staffer who now advises the California Taxpayers Association, has proposed.
Writing in the CTA bulletin, Doerr calls for eliminating nonbudgetary trailer bills, avoiding long, multitopic trailer bills, improving income and outgo estimates that are sometimes manipulated to make the fiscal situation rosier than it is, and adopting “performance-based budgeting.”
These would be modest steps to once again pull the budget out of the Capitol’s backrooms.