The California Legislature got some big things done this year. It passed a balanced budget on time, overhauled a dysfunctional school finance system and finally developed a plan to relieve prison crowding.
But the way lawmakers get things done in Sacramento is as ugly as ever -- especially in the final few weeks of the session, when they vote on hundreds of bills, often with major last-minute changes. The public has no way to follow, let alone participate in, this scrum. Even if it occasionally produces decent laws, it undermines the public's trust in government and democracy.
It ought to stop. Unfortunately there is little appetite for that among elected representatives. Earlier this year three of them introduced a bill that would solve only a small part of the problem by requiring legislation to be in print three days before lawmakers vote on it. It went nowhere.
The reason is galling. A Democratic committee analysis of the bill said the 72-hour wait "can allow the resolve for action to dissipate, and special interests can exert pressure and work to block carefully crafted agreements." In other words, once people find out what's in a bill, they might oppose it. That's just outrageous -- and it's not even true. In fact, usually it is the special interests who get exactly what they want.
Whether a law is good or not is beside the point. People will always disagree. Requiring bills to be in print before a vote at least gives Californians who don't have paid lobbyists a chance to know what's proposed so they can speak up if necessary.
Last month, for example, lawmakers used an egregious but common maneuver called "gut-and-amend" to replace the entire contents of an education bill that had passed the Senate with a sop to the firefighters' union. The sneaky bill would have cut the legs from under the League of California Cities, which often opposes public employee unions. Ironically, given the sleazy tactic, the bill's proponents claimed they merely sought more transparency in political spending. The measure ultimately was amended to be relatively harmless, but only after a furious, resource-sapping lobbying campaign by the League.
Gut-and-amend is almost always a deliberate attempt to avoid public scrutiny; very few bills are so urgent that they must be introduced at the last minute with little debate. The practice should be barred except for the rare emergency.
Californians already mistrust their representatives; that's why they've embraced term limits and ballot initiatives, despite the drawbacks of both.
Taking time to involve the public and being more transparent may cost lawmakers some short-term victories. But in the long run it is the right thing to do.