The annual state budget cycle is approaching the latter stages, when Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators chew through their remaining differences and, presumably, reach agreement.
The biggest question this year is whether Brown will accede, at last partially, to the demands of his fellow Democrats for more health, welfare and social service spending to aid the poor.
The Legislature’s version of the budget includes many of those increases, including an end to the long-standing cap on family welfare grants. And Democrats are pressing an expansion of subsidized child care as their major goal.
While those and other issues are ironed out, the late stages of the budget cycle include a less visible and somewhat unseemly activity – the drafting of so-called budget trailer bills.
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They are supposed to implement, legally, the budget’s provisions, and that’s perfectly legitimate. But when voters approved a 2010 ballot measure to reduce the legislative vote for budgets from two-thirds to a simple majority, they also – unwittingly, one can be certain – extended that much-looser rule to trailer bills.
That’s evolved into a rather smarmy practice of using trailer bills to enact things that have little or nothing to do with the budget, thus bypassing the usual public hearings and other open processes.
At one point last week, for instance, Brown administration officials were pushing a trailer bill that would have restricted release of information to the public about how social workers handled child abuse – even murder – cases, thus shielding them from criticism.
News media and other groups tumbled to the maneuver and it stalled in a budget subcommittee, but it still could emerge in a budget trailer bill.
That’s by no means the only example. Until the budget is finally enacted – and perhaps even afterward – the misuse of trailer bills to enact backroom deals will continue.
Take, for example, one provision that popped up in a budget subcommittee last week – an upward adjustment of rates that San Francisco Bay ship pilots can charge for guiding ships into and out of the harbor.
Those pilots average over $450,000 a year now. Four years ago, they and the quasi-public board that oversees them petitioned the Legislature for a rate increase. It was placed into a bill that went through the committee process but died due to opposition from ship owners.
This year, they are seeking a multiyear increase, but rather than put it into another single-purpose bill that would allow the competing stakeholders to have their say, as it’s been done in the past, they want it written into one of the dozens of trailer bills.
Pilots do vital work and may or may not be entitled to a rate increase; ship owners say they aren’t.
However, using a budget trailer bill may violate state law governing pilot rate processes and continues a sneaky, undemocratic and disgraceful practice.