As a legislative conference committee was doing its item-by-item sojourn through the state budget this month, many were marked "tbl." It was insider shorthand for "trailer bill language," but it just as easily could have stood for "trouble," because that's what the annual exercise of writing bills to accompany the budget has become.
As state budgets have become more complex, their appropriations have needed legislation to make the requisite policy changes. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that.
However, in recent years "trailer bills" have proliferated, and when voters lowered the vote requirement on budgets from two-thirds to simple majorities, it also was applied to trailer bills. That made them handy vehicles for enacting policy changes without the scrutiny or public input normally accorded such legislation — not unlike the irrelevant "riders" that Congress often attaches to its bills.
One trailer bill provision, for instance, would prohibit the management of Honda Center, Anaheim's sports arena, from laying off unionized food and beverage workers.
Another appears to help unionized home health aides in contract disputes.
Still another is aimed at curbing excursions of the Public Utilities Commission and its president, Michael Peevey, into off-the-books energy research projects.
Trailer bills are usually drafted in secret, just days or sometimes hours before they are presented for floor votes in both legislative houses. And even when the underlying issues have been discussed openly, the devil is often in the details and may not become apparent until after the deed is done.
Thus, the trailer bill process is often a game of political hide-the-pea, or perhaps catch-me-if-you-can.
Take, for example, the 226-page trailer bill meant to authorize Gov. Jerry Brown's massive overhaul of school finance.
The overall parameters — directing more money to school districts with large numbers of poor and/or English learner students — are known, but late Thursday, there was still sharp wrangling over the precise way in which charter schools would be treated.
Republicans — and some Democrats — have criticized the trailer bill process and sponsored a constitutional amendment to require such legislation be in print for 72 hours prior to voting, but it's been sidetracked by the Legislature's Democratic leaders.
GOP senators raised the issue again on the Senate floor Thursday as this year's batch of trailers was being placed on the agenda for votes the next day.
"Colleagues, ask yourself how comfortable you are with a final product produced by three people in a closed room that neither you, nor your constituents, have had a chance to review," Republican leader Bob Huff told the Senate.
The complaints went nowhere, of course, and the trailers kept on rolling.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.