For all the discussion occurring in cities like Santa Rosa about the importance of transparency and open government, Sacramento remains something of a black hole when it comes to lawmaking. Many major decisions are still made behind closed doors, out of sight from the public and far away from any recording equipment.
One of the most egregious practices concerns the “gut-and-amend” process, in which legislators take the body of legislation that’s already in debate, remove it, replace with new legislation that is often completely unrelated to the original bill — and frequently reflects the desires of special interests — and then ram it through in the final moments of a session without benefit of a proper public vetting.
Proposition 54 on the Nov. 8 ballot would put an end to such nonsense.
The measure is simple. It would prohibit the state Legislature from passing any bill unless it has been in print and published on the Internet for at least three days (72 hours), except in the case of a natural disaster or some other emergency.
Furthermore, the proposition would require legislators to make audio and video recordings of all their proceedings — except closed session meetings — and make sure the recordings are posted on the internet. The measure also makes clear that the recordings are a public record and can be acquired without mandate of a fee.
Proposition 54 is supported by a broad coalition of public interest groups including the League of Women Voters, the League of California Cities, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, Common Cause, the Conversation League, the California Chamber of Commerce and a variety of news media groups. One of its main sponsors is billionaire Charles Munger Jr., vice chairman of Warren Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway. The proponents include an odd mix of organizations and individuals who rarely agree on much of anything. But they’re in agreement on the importance of this.
Meanwhile, it is opposed largely by state insiders and those who benefit from the current process. Critics contend it would handcuff legislative leaders and could prevent them from brokering last-minute bipartisan deals on important issues such as bond measures and approval of the state budget.
That may be. But good democracy is rarely a rush-job, the kind of process too often employed in the state’s capital and too often used as an excuse for why the public isn’t allowed proper time to see legislation and comment before major initiatives are approved.
The opponents of this proposition saw it as such a threat that they attempted to come up with an 11th-hour alternative, albeit weaker, measure that potentially would have confused voters and resulted in preservation of the status quo. But the proposed constitutional amendment was so full of loopholes that it stalled in the Assembly, after passing the state Senate, and never made it on the ballot.
It’s a good thing. The public deserves a state government that is required to be as transparent in its governance as cities and counties.
In the weeks to come, you will hear us point out a number of state propositions on the Nov. 8 that should never have been placed before the voters. But this is not one of them.
The Press Democrat encourages a yes vote on Proposition 54.