Dan Walters

In minutes, two committees secretly dispose of hundreds of bills

The “appropriations committees” of both legislative houses decreed, in a matter of minutes, the fates of nearly 500 bills Thursday.

The Senate Appropriations Committee acted on bills that originated in the Assembly, while Assembly Appropriations processed Senate bills – and friction between the two houses was evident in the outcomes.

Few real votes were taken. Mostly, committee chairs just announced bills’ fates, or ignored those being killed.

While most bills were approved, dozens died and some were amended extensively, although details of changes were not immediately revealed.

The “suspense file” ritual exemplifies perpetual efforts of those in the Capitol to do what they do with minimum exposure to the public, occasionally interrupted by spasms of procedural reform, which inevitably erode into further sneakiness.

At one time, for instance, the chairmen of the Legislature’s two budget committees would personally and secretly draft a final budget that would then be presented to legislators on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

When the Senate budget chairman, facing a tough re-election in the early 1970s, packed the budget with park projects for his newly drawn district, other senators revolted and demanded a more public process.

Over time, however, the budget retreated behind closed doors again. Legislative leaders and the governor work it out in private, often inserting new items, and quickly seek floor votes, along with dozens of “trailer bills,” some making major policy having little or nothing to do with the budget.

In fact, although the 2016-17 budget was passed two months ago, trailer bills are still seeping out, including one that children’s welfare advocates said would allow officials to withhold vital information about child abuse cases, until it was amended on Thursday.

In the 1980s, a much-abused tool was the “conference committee,” which in theory reconciles differences between the two legislative houses.

In practice, entirely new bits of legislation would be written “in conference,” without committees even meeting, and quickly enacted.

A backlash led to some reforms, but sneakiness then shifted into what’s called “gut-and-amend,” in which bills are stripped of their contents and entirely new provisions inserted, often with scant opportunity for scrutiny before action.

In fact, most budget trailer bills are gut-and-amend products and misuse sparked a ballot measure, Proposition 54, which would require bills to be in print for 72 hours before votes.

Back to the “suspense file” process. Originally, it was a fiscal prudence reform – delaying action on bills with substantial costs until the budget was finalized.

It evolved, however, into a tool for legislative leaders to secretly kill or alter bills without members actually voting – but after, of course, getting private input from lobbyists.

That’s the kind of “ex parte” influence legislators decry in the state Coastal Commission. However, a bill curbing private contacts with Coastal Commission members was secretly watered down before clearing the Assembly Appropriations Committee Thursday.