Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Sneakiness abounds in final days of legislative session

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

When schoolchildren visit the Capitol, they often receive sheets of paper purporting to describe how a legislative bill becomes law.

The final days of any biennial session are a case study in what really happens, or doesn’t happen, and bear little relationship to that sheet of paper.

Take, for example, what happened simultaneously last Thursday in two committee hearing rooms.

The “appropriations committees” of both houses were meeting to take up what they call “suspense files.”

The appropriations committees don’t actually appropriate. That’s the job of the budget committees.

They are, in fact, funnels through which bills of any import must pass before reaching the floors of the houses. And while they are supposed to deal only with the fiscal aspects of legislation, they are really forums for contending interests to do battle after they’ve fought preliminary skirmishes in “policy committees.”

The suspense files were originally devised to control off-budget spending. Bills that exceeded arbitrary financial thresholds would be placed in suspense until after the state budget was enacted and legislators knew how much money was available for extra spending.

From that quite logical beginning, however, the suspense files evolved into ways for legislative leaders to decide behind closed doors which bills would fly and which would die.

Last week, with about 450 bills “on suspense,” the chairmen of the two committees, Assemblyman Mike Gatto and Sen. Kevin de León, simply announced which bills would be allowed to proceed, many with amendments that had never been aired in public.

For example, de León unilaterally inserted major amendments into a Gatto-authored bill extending a special tax break for the movie industry, hugely expanding its size and creating entirely new qualification procedures.

Gatto, at least, declared which bills would remain in suspense – effectively meaning dead. But de León didn’t provide even that much information. If he didn’t mention a bill on the suspense list, that omission signaled that it had been given a death sentence.

These very undemocratic procedures didn’t originate with Gatto and de León; they merely followed what had become established practice.

Nor will they be the last bits of expedient manipulation in the dying days of the session. The Capitol is buzzing with reports of entirely new bills (such as one having to do with milk prices) to be written into moribund pieces of legislation via a process known as “gut-and-amend,” thereby bypassing such procedures as public hearings.

Apologists for the system say that it’s the only way important work can be done, that if bills must go through hearings, waiting periods and other procedures it will give opponents too much time to react.

Well, yes. That’s called representative democracy.