PD Editorial: Making sure someone can read the bills
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 2:50 p.m.
Thirty-five years ago, a California state senator named H.L. Richardson wrote a book titled, “What makes you think we read the bills?”
Sometimes, when a bill is read is at least as important as whether it's read.
In Sacramento, legislative rules require 30 days between introduction of a bill and its first committee hearings — ample time to assess its contents. But at the other end of the process — when bills are brought to the floor for approval — there aren't any guarantees.
That needs to change.
And the state budget is a good place to start.
For the second consecutive year, a Southern California legislator has introduced a bill requiring that the entire budget be posted online for three days before a final vote in the Assembly and Senate.
Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, also wants to apply the rule to the “trailer bills,” the accompanying legislation required to implement the state budget.
Three days — 72 hours — isn't an onerous requirement.
Heck, it isn't even an especially high standard for transparency.
Yet Morrell's bill died without even a committee vote last year.
A legislative committee analysis warned that a three-day rule could keep lawmakers from meeting the June 15 constitutional deadline for approving a budget. Perhaps so. But it's hard to remember legislators losing sleep over that deadline, so we suspect Morrell's explanation gets closer to the truth about his bill's prospects.
“I expect those that have something to hide may not support this bill,” he told the Los Angeles Times recently.
Even if Morrell doesn't succeed, a state appellate court decision may give the public a greater opportunity to evaluate budget legislation before it's adopted.
The decision, issued Friday, says the Legislature acted unconstitutionally when it approved a bill to move Gov. Jerry Brown's tax proposal to the top of the Nov. 6 ballot.
The ruling doesn't affect voter approval of Proposition 30. What it will do is restrict a frequent abuse of the legislative process — the “spot bill.”
These bills are placeholders, drafted ahead of the deadline to introduce legislation and pushed along in case they're needed to consummate a deal. They've become a staple of the state budget, which typically requires an accompanying package of enabling legislation.
Presently, no fewer than 82 bills contain this text: “This bill would express the intent of the Legislature to enact statutory changes relating to the Budget Act of 2013.”
The idea is to amend the bills as needed once a budget agreement is reached. Last year, one such bill was used to give Brown preferential placement on the ballot — a dubious use of a budget bill, regardless of the merits of the initiative.
The appellate court's ruling is a victory for transparency, but the public still should be assured of a chance to read the bills before a vote — even if their elected representatives don't always bother.
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