California Lawmakers Race to Pass a Budget Bill With Little Time to Read it

By Kevin Yamamura  Sacramento Bee

The main budget bill coming before California lawmakers today is a 777-page piece of legislation that spells out how the state will spend billions of dollars over the next fiscal year.

Senate panel raced to consider the measure Thursday, along with a handful of related bills that arrived in committee fresh off the printer.

Passing the annual budget requires two dozen or more bills, the entire contents of which are virtually impossible for any one person to read in the days – and sometimes minutes – leading up to the floor vote.

The process inevitably comes down to the wire, a function of deadline procrastination and a desire to keep lobbyists in the dark after deals are struck behind closed doors, for fear they would generate enough opposition to unravel a compromise.

Those outside the Capitol criticize legislative leaders annually for a lack of sunshine.

“I think the bills should be in print for three days,” said Bob Stern, a veteran government watchdog who helped craft the state’s Political Reform Act. “I think three days would give everybody some chance to look at what’s in these bills, particularly the budget bill, which is the most important one of the year. But it’s usually provided at the last minute.”

In last year’s late-night budget vote, lawmakers approved a 73-page bill on education finance less than an hour after it reached the Senate floor. Assembly Bill 114 contained the guts of a compromise struck by Gov. Jerry Brown, Democratic leaders and the powerful California Teachers Association to prevent midyear teacher layoffs and curtail the powers of school district administrators.

Democratic leaders needed the union’s support to reduce school funding, and districts might have killed the bill, given enough time.

On Thursday, the Senate budget committee considered less than half of the 24 bills necessary to carry out a balanced budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. None was available online the previous evening.

Besides the main budget bill, which specifies the amounts spent on programs, lawmakers must pass other bills covering subjects from public safety to education that detail the steps necessary to save money or raise revenue.

Under Proposition 25, which voters passed in 2010 to force the Legislature to deliver on-time budgets, lawmakers say they must pass only the main budget bill by midnight tonight to avoid losing their pay and expense money. Democratic leaders plan to take up the main bill today and vote on most subject-oriented bills next week.

State Controller John Chiang withheld lawmakers’ pay a year ago in part because he said they needed to pass the full slate of budget bills to meet their responsibility. But Chiang was disarmed by an April court decision that said he has no authority to judge the Legislature’s budget.

Lawmakers themselves have the power to say whether a budget is balanced. They have essentially done so this year with a provision in the main budget bill declaring revenue at $94.4 billion, which assumes state voters will pass a November ballot initiative raising taxes on sales and upper-income earners.

The Senate budget committee met for an hour Thursday to consider 11 bills, while the Assembly did not convene its budget committee in advance of floor votes today. Notably absent from theSenate hearing were Republican lawmakers, who said they boycotted because the bills were not in print 24 hours beforehand.

“You’ve got to know what’s in there if you’re going to make an informed decision,” said Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar. “This process has taken partisanship and secrecy to new levels.”

Republicans may know less this year about budget contents than ever before. Prior to 2011, a two-thirds vote of the Legislature was necessary to pass a budget, which meant Republicans had a seat at closed-door meetings and sway over the final product. Though Democrats had majority-vote budget power last year, they negotiated in an attempt to place taxes on a special election ballot.

This year, Democrats gathered signatures to place the tax initiative on the November ballot, and they have left Republicans out of serious budget discussions. Lawmakers did not hold two-house “conference committee” hearings on the budget this year, bypassing a process that once was instrumental to writing most of the budget.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg downplayed complaints about transparency, saying all of the individual budget proposals were vetted “in the light of day” during 60 different hearings this spring. He blamed Republicans for taking themselves out of negotiations and called their boycott “silly.”

“The Republicans are desperately trying to find a way, I guess, to make a point,” Steinberg said. “But what’s been apparent around here for years is that when you sign pledges and you take extreme positions, you don’t give yourself a chance to be as relevant as you want.”

Steinberg said lawmakers and Brown were only about $200 million apart in a $91 billion general fund budget.

But it was not clear that Brown’s position on the bill will come down to a dollar amount. The governor has called for dramatic cuts in key safety-net programs, including welfare-to-work, that Democratic legislators have resisted. And Michael Cohen, an aide speaking on behalf of Brown, blasted the Democrats’ plan to take $250 million in funds that counties believe they are owed from pacts with redevelopment agencies.

The $250 million proposal was an example of why lawmakers often wait until the last minute to release details. Three hours after Democrats revealed that idea Wednesday, the California State Association of Counties condemned the plan and hinted that counties may sue.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” said Jeff Cummins, a political science professor at Fresno State, who recently published a study of state budget gridlock. “It’s a good thing to have more transparency. But at the same time, it could hurt efforts at compromise if lobbyists get ahold of information and organize protests.”