Prop. 54 is right call for more transparency at Capitol

Lobbyists huddle outside the Senate Chambers as they wait to talk to lawmakers about various bills.
Lobbyists huddle outside the Senate Chambers as they wait to talk to lawmakers about various bills. Associated Press file

Giving the public more power to peer into the murkiness of state politics is generally a good thing. And so we find it hard to object to Proposition 54, which would slow the last-minute surge of bills that get shoved through the Legislature every year, usually with nowhere near enough scrutiny.

A “yes” vote would tackle this affront to transparency by prohibiting a vote on legislation unless it has been in print and published online for at least 72 hours. The initiative takes particular aim at the most egregious uses of the “gut and amend” process, which often leaves lawmakers voting on bills they’ve never read and the Californians they represent in the dark.

Under Prop. 54, only the governor declaring a state of emergency for, say, an earthquake, could lead to an exemption – and only for legislation relevant to addressing the emergency.

The initiative also would require the Legislature to record all its public meetings, post the videos online within 24 hours and leave them there for at least 20 years. And gone would be the ban on recording legislative meetings with, say, an iPhone, and then using the audio or video clips for other purposes.

Prop. 54 is backed by the California Republican Party and good-government and business groups. They insist big changes will result from it. Opponents, including the California Democratic Party and California Labor Federation, argue the initiative would hand special interest groups more power and make it harder for lawmakers to get deals done.

Ultimately, we doubt the effects of Prop. 54 would be earth-shattering. Dramatic though it may seem, in practice it’s a rather modest attempt at increasing transparency. Special interests still would have their say and wield their influence at the Capitol whether or not the initiative is on the books. Backroom deals still would happen.

Like most initiatives, Prop. 54 isn’t perfect. It threatens to make private discussions public if they’re within earshot of cameras. Footage shot by citizens with an ax to grind almost certainly will be chopped up and reconstituted into political attack ads.

The initiative is being pushed by Charles Munger Jr., the wealthy Republican activist and physicist who funded Proposition 11 in 2008 and Proposition 20, which in 2010 established the independent redistricting commission to draw legislative and congressional boundaries.

Voters generally should be wary of initiatives that are bankrolled by a single person. But it’s hard to see how the current legislative process – in which bills are rushed through in hours – could be made worse by Prop. 54.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that it will cost about $1 million a year to record and archive Senate and Assembly meetings, as stipulated in the initiative. That’s a small price to pay for more transparency.