Dan Walters: California reverting to secrecy

05/07/2013 12:00 AM

05/07/2013 8:51 AM

There's nothing ambiguous about Article IV, Section 8a of the California Constitution:

"At regular sessions no bill other than the budget bill may be heard or acted upon by committee or either (legislative) house until the 31st day after the bill has been introduced unless the house dispenses with this requirement by roll-call vote entered into the journal, three-fourths of the membership concurring."

Its purpose is clear: The Legislature should give the public and those directly affected some time to weigh the import and impact of a new law before it is enacted, unless there's a genuine emergency.

Or, to turn it around, it's bad form for the Legislature to whip up secret legislation and impose it on the public. But the Legislature often does just that, thus violating the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the constitution.

It's called "gut-and-amend."

Suddenly – usually in the final, hectic hours of a legislative session – a dormant bill is stripped of its contents and entirely new language is inserted. The new measure is quickly enacted, sometimes before legislators can even read it.

This pernicious practice has become even worse in recent months. Democratic legislative leaders now routinely insert token $1,000 appropriations into late-blooming bills and declare them to be "budget trailer bills."

They can then be enacted with simple majority votes and take effect immediately upon being signed by the governor, without the customary 90-day waiting period.

Bipartisan constitutional amendments have been introduced to require bills to be in print for 72 hours before any vote, except in a genuine emergency.

But a supposedly objective Assembly staff analysis is an Orwellian apologia for secret bill-writing. Requiring a 72-hour review window, it says, "can allow the resolve for action to dissipate, and special interests can work to block carefully crafted agreements."

In reality, special-interest lobbyists are deeply involved in what have been dubbed "mushroom bills," because they grow in the dark. Not surprisingly, legislative leaders have sidetracked the reforms – without a public vote, of course.

As loathsome as writing laws in secret may be, it is not the only example of California's trend of official secrecy.

The Fresno Bee is raising a stink about the secret process by which a new president of Fresno State is being chosen. A group of judges is complaining about the refusal of the state Judicial Council, headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, to respond to its requests for documents related to judicial financing.

Secret government is becoming routine in California, once a pioneer in open meetings and open records laws. We Californians should not tolerate being treated so arrogantly by our supposed public servants.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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