Do you remember when Rep. Nancy Pelosi said about the Affordable Care Act, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it …”?
She was mocked for that statement, and rightly so. Unfortunately, that type of legislating in the dark has too often been the norm in California.
It’s common practice in Sacramento for bills to be gutted late in the legislative session, their wording “amended” with completely new language, and then voted on without committee oversight hearings, without being published on the state website for public review and without legislators given time to read and consider them.
In 2011, an education bill was passed despite the fact we received its language 15 minutes after the vote. This bill imposed financial hardship on schools all across California.
Another gut-and-amend bill, designed to change the initiative process, was passed the day after a perfunctory 13-minute hearing that had been scheduled with just two hours notice. We really didn’t know what we were voting on in terms of the details.
That’s simply unacceptable. How can we be expected to make wise decisions if we don’t have an opportunity to review the language?
Also in 2011, 48 bills were completely rewritten in the final weeks of the session; 22 making it to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. He signed all but three. Bills that had been gutted and amended and rushed through the process passed at a rate of 46 percent, significantly higher than bills approved through the normal committee review process.
Examples like these send a bad message to the public and contribute to cynical attitudes toward the Legislature. It’s no wonder that nearly half of likely voters disapprove of the way the California Legislature is handling its job, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.
Over the years I’ve introduced legislation to curb this gut-and-amend abuse. My latest effort, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1, would have prohibited the Legislature from passing a bill unless it had been made available in print and on the internet for 72 hours prior to the vote – except in the case of a declared emergency. And it would have allowed bills to be heard by committees only after the contents of the bill were available on the Internet for at least 15 days.
Unfortunately that bill, like the three similar legislative attempts I made before it, was bottled up in a committee and never allowed to come up for a vote. Year after year, efforts to shed more light on state lawmaking are shelved without a vote.
The powers of status quo in Sacramento are quick to mandate greater transparency requirements on local governments, businesses and nonprofits, but refuse to apply similar rules to themselves. Simply put, the Legislature should hold itself accountable to standards of open, transparent government.
Fortunately, Proposition 54 is on the November ballot, allowing Californians the chance to vote on these commonsense transparency reforms. It would require bills to be posted on the Internet at least 72 hours before a vote (with the exception of emergencies declared by the governor). It also requires that all of the Legislature’s public meetings be recorded and posted on the Internet within 24 hours and archived online for at least 20 years. It allows the public to record and broadcast meetings and use them for any legitimate purpose without paying a fee to the state.
Too much of what goes on in Sacramento happens in the middle of the night when the public isn’t watching. This is not healthy for our democracy.
As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” It’s time to shine a light and modernize the legislative process, ending the backroom dealmaking that dominates too much of what goes on at the state Capitol.
Kristin Olsen represents the 12th Assembly District, which includes parts of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. She wrote this for The Modesto Bee.