By Brian Joseph
Capitol Watchdog Column
The Orange County Register
September 14, 2007
SACRAMENTO Lawmakers like to say they've come to the Capitol to do the people's work.
But watch how bills are passed and you'll see that sometimes the people have no place in lawmaking.
Early Wednesday, the Legislature concluded its regular business for the year in an annual rush known as the end of session. This is a time famous for highjinks, and even though the governor has asked legislators to return this year to focus on health care and water storage, I watched the Senate flex its muscle at the 11th hour and push through a relatively minor bill with virtually no public disclosure.
At around 10 p.m. Tuesday, after a watching the Senate and the Assembly hear more than 170 bills over 10 hours, I learned of Assembly Bill 1719. An unheralded, anonymous measure, AB1719 was introduced in March as a place holder or "spot bill" -- it didn't do anything but reserve the number after the February deadline for introducing new bills.
I would never have even thought to look up AB1719 if a speaker in the Senate hadn't announced that it was suddenly, at this late hour, being referred to a committee. Curious, I asked around and learned that the content of the bill was being gutted and replaced with a proposal by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.
The new language, I learned, provides a $25 million savings to private businesses by suspending for another year a processing fee that beverage manufacturers are supposed to contribute to a state recycling fund.
At computer terminals in the back of Senate chambers, I looked up reports by Republican and Democratic staffers that said what they thought the new language did, but I couldn't actually read the bill. The changes were so new that the bill was not yet in print and wouldn't be for hours, meaning that the public effectively couldn't review the bill until after the Senate voted on it.
Under legislative rules, most bills can't be heard or voted on until they've been in print for 30 days, to allow for public review. But when the clock is ticking down on the last day of the legislative calendar, lawmakers simply suspend the rules. The Democrats in the majority typically have enough votes to do that.
At 12:25 a.m., the Senate Appropriations Committee was convened just off the Senate floor to publicly vet, for the first time, the new content of AB1719. These hastily called hearings are typical for bills like AB1719. Their frequency adds to the chaotic, seat-of-the-pants quality that permeates the end of session.
At the hearing, Sen. Dave Cox, R-Fair Oaks, questioned why the bill was coming through so late, but he along with 12 other committee members ultimately voted for it after little more than 10 minutes of testimony from Hancock and supporters, most of whom simply stated their name and the organization they represented. Only Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, voted no.
Of the 50 or so people who witnessed the hearing, there wasn't one who didn't appear to be a lobbyist, reporter or staffer.
As Aanestad later told me: "Who else has the time or the wherewithal to be up at 3 a.m. to watch their Legislature that's supposed to be watching out for them?"
At 1:38 a.m., AB1719 was brought up on the Senate floor. It was presented by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, who spoke for less than a minute before it passed 35 to 3. Less than four hours after I first learned of it, the bill had passed out of one house and was heading to the Assembly for concurrence.
I suspect AB1719 would have easily passed out of the Assembly as well, except the clock apparently ran out. The Assembly concluded its regular business for the year at around 3:30 a.m. without taking up the bill.
But had AB1719 been heard and passed, I think it's safe to say the bill would have been sent to the governor without the public ever getting a chance to read it.
None of this means the bill is bad law. So-called "bottle bills" like AB1719 have been passing through the Capitol for years and, as Hancock noted in the Appropriations hearing, this proposal is an extension of a deal from last year that was the product of "endless hours of negotiations and it went through the complete process."
And while the public might not have gotten any advanced warning about the bill, Republicans did. Democrats informed the Republicans days earlier that the changes to AB1719 were coming. On Monday, Republican staffers were given the language so a GOP analysis could be written. What's more, legislative rules require lawmakers to at least see a draft of the bills they're voting on.
But Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine told me outside review is vital to lawmaking. During budget negotiations this year, outside interests contacted Republicans about concerns they had with language in budget trailer bills. Senate Republicans investigated their concerns and eventually negotiated that language out.
But that won't happen if the public can't review the bills.
"I think the gut-and-amend process is not a good one because you don't get as much public input, plus ... the members don't have time to look at it," said Ackerman, who voted for AB1719 early Wednesday. "Some of those bills have been around a lot, like the bottle bills ... so people generally have a familiarity with it. But from a general thing, I'd just as soon eliminate all gut-and-amends."