Dan Walters

Opinion: An illusion of action in California’s Capitol

Anyone who wandered into the state Capitol this week might conclude that important business was being done.

The floors of both legislative houses are going full blast, working through more than 500 bills – the core of this year’s legislative agenda.

Meanwhile, a two-house conference committee is chewing through two versions of the 2015-16 state budget, supposedly reconciling their differences.

Lobbyists crowd the hallways, trying to have their way with legislators. And outside the Capitol, demonstrations and rallies are being staged by various interest groups, hoping to influence what’s happening inside.

What’s happening this week, however, is by no means definitive of anything. It’s all very preliminary, merely setting the stage for the real decision-making that will come later.

The floors are going due to a legislative rule that all bills must clear their “house of origin” by Friday and be sent to the other house.

Almost none of them are being rejected for the simple reason that the appropriations committees of both houses, acting on behalf of legislative leaders, pre-decided – in secrecy – which would reach the floors.

The real decisions on which bills will reach Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk won’t be made until August or even September.

They must clear the committees of the second house, the floor of the second house and then, almost always, a final vote in the house of origin before being sent to the governor.

Casting votes for or against measures now is easy because, in effect, those votes don’t count. And if history is any guide, quite a few of the bills being approved this week with flowery speeches and self-congratulatory press releases will never make it back, or be amended to something quite different.

The 500-plus bills going through the mill this week are, in the main, a very liberal agenda, spending many millions or even billions of dollars on new social, medical and educational benefits, plus imposing new costs on businesses, such as the minimum wage hike approved by the Senate on Monday.

Brown, however, has publicly warned against massive new spending and has looked askance at bills considered to be “job killers” by business groups, so when he finally passes the word on what he’ll accept, the agenda will likely shrink.

Indeed, about a third of the bills given that epithet by the California Chamber of Commerce have already fallen by the wayside.

The same dynamic is evident in the budget, which must, by law, be enacted by June 15, lest legislators lose their salaries.

Democrats want billions of dollars in spending, mostly for the poor, beyond what Brown has proposed and closed-door negotiations will eventually produce the budget he wants, or at least deems acceptable.

In brief, what’s happening this week in and around the Capitol is just a practice game – spring training, as it were, for the real games ahead.

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