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Assembly Speaker Gives Public the Finger

Sacramento

For a stellar example of the disdain with which some California legislators treat the public, consider a series of votes that Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, scheduled right before the Assembly adjourned Friday. The Assembly voted on nearly 90 bills, yet did so apparently without waiting for those bills to have been published for 72 hours before the vote.

If critics are correct, the votes were a transparent attempt to undermine a recent initiative that passed by a nearly two-to-one margin and in all of California’s 58 counties. That measure, Proposition, 54, mandated the 72-hour waiting period to assure that legislators and the public could see what was actually in the bills before the vote.

It might sound like “inside baseball,” but the initiative was one of the most significant good-government reforms passed in California in decades. Legislators have a habit of gutting and amending bills as legislative deadlines approach. Old bills routinely are stripped of their language and entirely new language is inserted.

So, for instance, some noncontroversial bill will be transformed into a major government-expanding nightmare without hearings or public input, and usually without legislators having the chance to read the text before they vote on it. Unions and other liberal special interests love this process, which lets them ram through troubling measures without giving media the opportunity to report on them or opponents the chance to rally their forces.

Prop. 54 is clear: “Any bill (including changes to the bill) would have to be made available to legislators and posted on the internet for at least 72 hours before the Legislature could pass it,” according to the official ballot summary. It has an exemption for bills deemed by the governor as emergency measures. Prop. 54 was the brainchild of former Republican Sen. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and backed by moderate Republican donor Charles Munger Jr. They were frustrated by the Legislature’s failure to pass such a measure (and put it before voters) on its own.

Last week, the Senate did the right thing and waited 72 hours before voting on its package of bills as the house-of-origin deadline approached, which was admirable given that many Democratic senators — including Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles — were not exactly champions of the proposition.

But the Assembly came up with a convoluted explanation. “Assembly bills will not be in final form until they are presented on the floor of the Senate,” said the Assembly’s chief clerk, according to news reports. In other words, Assembly officials argue — contra the clear intent of the proposition, and years of legislative precedent — that the term “in final form” doesn’t apply to votes in the house where the bill originated, but only to votes in the second house.

The California Political Reform Act and years of precedent have long established that definition. The initiative’s backers were clear in their ballot arguments that the intent of the measure was to require the waiting period for a final vote in each house. The alternative argument makes little sense. Why would the measure’s drafters want one house’s legislators to get adequate time to review what they are voting on — but not the other house’s legislators?

“I’m disappointed, yet not surprised the Legislature is looking for a way to hide their activities,” Blakeslee said in an interview. He also pointed to the state’s sunshine act, which strongly states that when there’s any ambiguity in the interpretation of a statute, that it should be resolved in favor of governmental transparency. He finds it “curious that the Legislature now wants to narrowly construe ‘final form.’”

Well, maybe it isn’t that curious.

“The California Democrats think they are above the law,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen, the Huntington Beach Republican who led the charge against the floor action. “It was very clear that this would be a Prop. 54 violation. … It’s absolute arrogance. It’s this cavalier attitude that prevails in Sacramento — that the rules don’t apply to them.” Allen’s motions that would have forced the Assembly to have waited 72 hours failed on a party-line vote.

Prop. 54 is a useful reform in a world where activists routinely propose initiatives that are more pie in the sky. One particularly silly but highly publicized proposed measure (which went nowhere) would have required legislators to wear the logos of their top 10 campaign contributors on their clothing when they advocate policies on the legislative floor, in a fashion similar to those worn by NASCAR drivers. There are plans to break up the state, and even to turn California into a separate country. (I like the breakup idea, but it remains a thought experiment.)

Despite being less headline worthy, Proposition 54 hits legislators where it hurts, by eliminating the prime means by which they sneak through government-expanding legislation. It also requires that public meetings be quickly posted on the internet and affirms the public’s right to video publicly held Capitol meetings. As a constitutional amendment, legislators cannot tinker with it — but they can, apparently, invent strange interpretations and try to circumvent the law.

Rendon certainly is taking a risk here. As I wrote for Calwatchdog, he appears to be playing chicken with the initiative’s backers and the courts. Munger, the son of the billionaire vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has funded many political reform causes in California. He spent several million dollars on the Proposition 54 campaign, so he definitely has the means to challenge the Assembly’s interpretation in court. The initiative’s backers have told reporters they are looking at their legal options.

Furthermore, any passage of bills that didn’t follow the measure’s requirements could lead to the laws being invalidated. If the Assembly were serious about its interpretation, it could have passed a minor test-case bill without a 72-hour notice to see how a court might react. Instead, critics allege that it passed volumes of bills without notice — in service of secrecy. Assembly leaders may be figuring that no court would toss out that much legislation.

The initiative process already has taken a hit after courts have ruled that Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest high-speed rail plan can continue to spend $9.95 billion in bond funds even though its latest iteration seems to directly violate the supposedly inviolate promises made to voters in 2008’s Proposition 1A. If the Assembly’s interpretation of Prop. 54 stands, then it will mean a giant poke in the eye to the public. You can vote for whatever you choose at the ballot box, but legislators will interpret the measure in whatever way that suits them.

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
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Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
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