State Issues

'Trailers' on state laws undercut democratic process

The 15 "trailer bills" accompanying the stalled-out California state budget contain countless words, many of which deal with matters that have nothing to do with the budget itself. As noted in previous columns, the trailers are often used as vehicles to slip into law provisions that bypass the ordinary legislative process.

One bill, Senate Bill 86, contains a two-pronged assault on democratic process that not only bypasses the usual procedure for making new law, but also transfers the regulations authorized by the new law to a private organization that's completely unaccountable to the public.

For much of the year, legislators and lobbyists for various interests have been negotiating over how state buildings should comply with anti-greenhouse gas emission policies, but one passage of SB 86 short-circuits those talks by decreeing that buildings the state builds or leases after Jan. 1, 2009, must meet standards of a private organization called the United States Green Building Council.

By all accounts, USGBC is a legitimate organization that acts as a forum for agreements on environmentally friendly building standards.

But it's not the only organization doing that work. At any rate, the standards it decrees and the methods it uses to draft those decrees are matters of its internal politics -- including influence from those who support it financially -- and are shielded from input by the outside world.

Under SB 86, therefore, California taxpayers would be on the hook for whatever standards USGBC developed by whatever process it uses.

Were this an isolated case, it might merit a pass, but it's part of a broader legislative tendency to avoid tough policy decisions by shifting them to unaccountable outside organizations.

A few years ago, for instance, then-Assemblyman (now Senator) Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, carried a bill aimed at creating what could only be called dossiers on the families of children served by social service and health care agencies, authorizing amazingly detailed interrogations of kids about their family lives.

When one version of his bill didn't fly, Steinberg took the backdoor approach, requiring that children's programs use recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics in fashioning questionnaires. Whatever information the academy decreed to be sought would be sought, under law, from children under Steinberg's bill, which ultimately failed.

This year's legislative session offered another example of abdicating important regulatory or rule-making power to an outside body. Assemblyman Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, originally proposed that young California girls be immunized against cervical cancer with a specific vaccine called Gardasil.

When an intense controversy erupted, he changed his bill to wipe out all current legally required student vaccinations and decree, instead, that whatever the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended would be more or less automatically required in California. That didn't quiet the critics. So the bill, Assembly Bill 16, was changed again to place the responsibility for immunization rules on the state public health officer, which is where it should be.

If someone objects to a proposed law, or a proposed administrative rule, there are processes to register those complaints. Once an outside, often private, organization is given the legal power to promulgate rules with the force of law, however, those rights wither.

Getting back to the issue at hand: If the Legislature wants to impose green building rules on state agencies, it should do it, or at least give that authority to some other publicly accountable agency.

Handing it to a private group in a sneakily drafted bill is simply undemocratic.

E-mail Dan Walters at dwalters@sacbee.com.

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