Viewpoints

’Trailer bills’ violate public trust and serve special interests. Here’s a plan for reform

Hear governor Gavin Newsom’s 2019 state budget proposal

Gavin Newsom revealed his $209 billion California state budget proposal on Jan. 10, 2019.
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Gavin Newsom revealed his $209 billion California state budget proposal on Jan. 10, 2019.

By law, the State Legislature must pass a state budget every year by June 15. The state budget is a single bill, but it is accompanied each year by several dozen budget “trailer” bills that are hundreds of pages long.

Trailer bills originally made technical changes to the law so the budget could be implemented. Today, that is not the case. As one senior legislative staff member put it, nearly “50 percent of all policy changes are now done in the trailer bills.”

Trailer bills are all-or-nothing. Legislators either vote for or against everything in a trailer bill. If a legislator objects to one thing, she or he can’t pull it out. If a legislator wants to vote against a trailer bill, she or he is voting against hundreds of other things they agree with in the bill.

But most importantly, trailer bills are only public for three days.

Dozens of trailer bills – thousands of pages of changes in hundreds of other laws – are only public for three days prior to the budget coming before the legislature for approval.

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Further, there are no public hearings for trailer bills. Anyone outside the legislature, and without a lobbyist, has to take it on faith that everything in a trailer bill is on the up and up.

And while the state budget is only in effect for one year, the changes made in trailer bills can last for decades, taking effect the day the Governor signs them.

So trailer bills, which are public for three days, are then voted on the next day, and become law a day later. That’s a total of five days from start to finish. Outside of an emergency – like wildfire devastation or a hepatitis A outbreak – why so fast? No good reason.

Many of the changes made in trailer bills may be necessary. But a public process ensures debate and allows the public an opportunity to know what’s being decided and the impacts it will have on their lives. That is a good thing.

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With the current process, lobbyists can ensure a few measures protecting their special-interest clients get quietly incorporated into trailer bill language.

It’s time to make trailer bills a part of the public process, time to make them something that the public can truly understand and interact with.

Everyone deserves the chance to be heard, to debate and to know what’s going on. We deserve transparency.

I am proposing to the leaders of both parties, in both Legislative houses, that we integrate these “sunshine” procedures for budget trailer bills:

First, each trailer bill must be public for 14 days before the final vote.

Second, during those 14 days, each policy committee must analyze the content of trailer bills within their policy area and make those analyses available to the public.

Third, any legislator who wants to remove a specific trailer bill item can submit a formal letter stating their case and all legislators will be given the chance to register their formal agreement or disagreement in writing.

Let’s take a step forward by creating a more public square for budget trailer bills.

State Assemblyman Brian Maienschein represent California’s 77th Assembly District.

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