The institutional evolution of the California Legislature has taken many forms over the last half-century. One of them, unfortunately, has been a tendency to emulate Congress.
The Legislature once prided itself on being different from its larger cousin in Washington – more transparent, more creative, less hidebound, etc.
Politicians who made the transition from the Legislature to Congress would often lament losing their ability to draft and carry single-subject pieces of legislation, being relegated to seeking tiny amendments in large omnibus bills, or being compelled to focus on minor local matters rather than major policy issues.
Slowly, but surely, the Legislature has adopted Washington’s ways.
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The sneaky congressional practice of inserting unrelated “riders” into bills on other subjects, for example, is now mirrored in the Legislature’s sneaky practice of using “trailer bills,” meant to implement the state budget, as last-minute vehicles for non-budgetary matters to bypass an open process.
The latest budget cycle, which ended in June, included its usual ration of complex trailer bills that surfaced only hours before they were to be passed with minimal discussion.
That, however, is just one way the Legislature’s budget process has begun to resemble what Congress does.
Once, the state budget was a single bill enacted one time each year after a well-defined process, unlike the congressional habit of passing a series of “authorization” and “appropriation” bills, some of them just stopgaps, that rarely add up to a coherent whole budget.
As this year’s state budget cycle demonstrated, that’s more or less become the model for Sacramento.
The Legislature passed a “budget” on June 15 to meet the technical constitutional deadline, knowing that it was unacceptable to Gov. Jerry Brown, and a day later re-enacted it with changes he demanded.
Meanwhile, however, it also passed a batch of trailer bills that not only implemented the revised budget, but contained, as mentioned above, provisions – some of them special-interest favors – that have nothing to do with the budget.
Even so, Brown and legislators left undone big chunks of what should be considered the budget. The to-do list includes financing much-needed maintenance work on the state highway system, spending more than $2 billion in “cap-and-trade” fee revenue and financing the state’s fast-growing Medi-Cal program for the poor.
Dealing with them will involve many billions of dollars in taxes and fees. It will be, in effect, a second budget process. And we are already seeing efforts to exploit the special sessions Brown called for highways and Medi-Cal by reviving legislation that had failed previously.
Moreover, we’ll probably see budget revisions later during the fiscal year. And thanks to Brown’s use of an “accrual” accounting system, even past years’ budgets can be revised.
Nor is emulating the obtuse and opaque ways of Congress confined to the budget.
Another Washington-like tendency is passing sweeping legislation but leaving the sticky, all-important, details to unelected bureaucrats, such as the Air Resources Board’s multibillion-dollar “cap-and-trade” fees to curb greenhouse gases.
That propensity is especially indolent and feckless.