In this Sept. 7, 2011 photo, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, left, talks with Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, as the Assembly debated Padilla's measure to speed up construction of a possible NFL football stadium in Los Angeles, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. Padilla's bill was one of several that were approved by lawmakers in a practice known as gut and amend. Under the practice, legislation is amended by replacing the original language with entirely new proposals and often approved in the closing days of the Legislature. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

How California lawmakers 'gut and amend' bills in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO - Among the highest-priority bills passed toward the end of California's legislative session was one designed to benefit construction of a football stadium in downtown Los Angeles and speed the return of the NFL to the nation's second most populous city.

You'd never know that was the intent by the way the bill began its legislative life.

Senate Bill 292 was introduced in February as legislation addressing the transfer of community college credits to public universities. A companion bill rushed through in similar fashion would benefit other large construction projects but began as legislation requiring schools to install recycling and composting bins.

Both were entirely rewritten within three days of the Legislature's adjournment, using a maneuver referred to in political parlance as gut-and-amend.

The process has been used for years in the Capitol but this year was applied to some of the most high-profile bills now residing in the governor's office, including compromise legislation that will delay collection of sales taxes from and other online retailers.

It also was used on a bill that would prohibit ballot initiatives from appearing on the June primary ballot, another that would automatically certify a farmworker union if the farm was found to have committed election misconduct and still another to allow workers at child care centers to unionize.

The method was even employed on tax-reform legislation sought by Gov. Jerry Brown that ultimately failed to make it through the Legislature.

The gut-and-amend process allows lawmakers to bypass the usual deadlines for bill introductions and amendments, while circumventing a public review process that allows those interested in a particular piece of legislation to testify during committee hearings or write a lawmaker with their concerns.

The practice was so widespread toward the end of the session that concluded Sept. 10 that even many lawmakers registered their disgust.

The bill shifting all statewide initiatives and referendums to November general election ballots, when a higher percentage of Democrats are likely to vote, began as legislation to raise the fee for filing an initiative from $200 to $2,000. The same bill also postpones a vote scheduled for next June on California's rainy day fund until November 2014, a move that Republicans and Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles said reneged on part of last year's budget compromise.

The initiative bill was pushed by Democrats, who have majorities in the Assembly and Senate, and never had a hearing before a Senate policy committee before it was passed about 1 a.m. on a Saturday, just minutes before the Legislature adjourned for the year.

"Sometimes we need to do gut-and-amends because a deal comes together such as this Amazon deal. Sometimes we need gut-and-amends because there's an intense urgency, such as 12 percent unemployment. This is not one of those bills," Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, said to his fellow lawmakers. "We as Democrats should be ashamed of how this came to this Senate floor."

Even though he condemned the process, Lieu voted for the bill. That drew jeers from Republicans who opposed the shift.

"The problem isn't just gut-and-amend, it's kind of gut-and-pervert," said Jim Mayer, executive director of the nonpartisan think tank California Forward. "Every gut-and-amend - it's really a power play - comes with the suspicion that it's to avoid public scrutiny."

Gut-and-amends have been a problem for years, yet there seemed to be more of them on more prominent subjects this year, said Derek Cressman, western regional director of Common Cause.

"It's a prime opportunity for lobbyists and special interests to slip things through that might not have passed in the light of day," he said. "It's an opportunity for legislators to do things in their own institutional self-interest without the public noticing."

Reform efforts have foundered.

Republican lawmakers introduced a handful of bills and constitutional amendments this year to force the Legislature to make budget bills public at least three days before a vote, a move also recommended by California Forward. A proposed constitutional amendment by state Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, would have prohibited dead-of-night legislative sessions unless lawmakers were responding to a natural disaster.

All five measures died in committees.

"If it's going to change, my guess is it's going to have to change from the outside," through a voter initiative, said Tracy Westen, chief executive officer of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

Sometimes the procedure was used to revive bills that had died in committee, such as a bill requiring insurance coverage for autistic children. The autism proposal jumped between three different bills before it went to Brown's desk.

"The abuse of process is breathtaking," said Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo.

The same method also was used to send Brown a bill letting child care center workers join unions, a proposal that had been vetoed four times by his Republican predecessor.

This time, the proposal was amended onto a bill that already had been transformed three times: from a budget bill, to one eliminating redevelopment agencies, to one cutting in-home care for the elderly and disabled.

Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, authored the autism bill and defended the practice as pragmatically necessary in certain cases. As an example, he cited his amendments to AB900, which was a companion to the Los Angeles stadium bill and would accelerate environmental reviews during the construction of other arenas, stadiums or other large projects.

To win passage, Steinberg had to promise his colleagues that he will introduce yet another bill next year to fix problems he acknowledged are in the hastily written legislation. But Steinberg said he had to piggyback his bill on the Los Angeles stadium legislation or risk missing an opportunity.

"Sometimes you have to seize the moment," Steinberg said. "I acknowledge that the process can be messy. But in the end, I think on issues like this the people also expect us to do everything we can to help improve the economy and get folks back to work. So it's always a balance, and it's a case-by-case."

Another bill originally concerned the operations of the California Transportation Commission, until Steinberg gutted it to advance his plan to increase protections for farmworkers who want to join a union.

"This whole process of gut-and-amend - completely replacing - is an attempt to get around our established rules, and I think we all should be very concerned about it," said Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton.


Associated Press writer Sheila V Kumar contributed to this story.

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