Assembly bills vs. Proposition 54

Capitol Weekly

By Anna Frazier, June 15, 2017

A boost in the bill-introduction limit for members of the Assembly could allow up to 800 new pieces of legislation by the end of 2018.

But a question arises: Will the crush of new bills, which likely would push the Assembly’s total above 3,000 per session, make it harder to meet the provisions of Proposition 54, which requires the final version of each bill to be in print at least 72 hours before final action?

More bills mean less time to devote to each measure and potential violations of Proposition 54 — something that’s already happened in the Assembly, according to Proposition 54’s supporters.

Voters approved that law in November to bring more transparency to the Legislature’s bill-handling, giving the public a heads up before critical floor votes.

Since 2002, when the 40-bill introduction limit per Assembly member was put in place, roughly 1,500 Assembly bills have been introduced each year during the two-year session. Thus far this year, 1,732 Assembly bills have been introduced, a figure that reflects the raised cap.

A massive, 69-page resolution was approved at the end of last year to raise the limit to 50 bills for the 2017-18 regular session. Assemblyman Ken Cooley, the chair of the Assembly Rules Committee, carried the measure. On the Senate side, meanwhile, the limit of 40 bills per lawmaker remains in place.

Last session, the Assembly averaged 37 bills per elected member, totaling nearly 3,000.  The figure does not include special session bills, amendments and resolutions that are not part of the bill introduction cap. “We wanted to give each member the freedom to introduce bills they saw fit for the needs of their districts,” said Kevin Liao, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Proposition 54, the California Legislature Transparency Act, requires bills and amendments to be published online in their “final form” for the public and legislators at least 72 hours prior to voting on the legislation — except in emergencies.

When asked if increasing the bill load affects the ability of the Legislature to meet the provisions of the Transparency Act, Liao said, “I don’t see a connection there, at least not one we have considered.”

The crux of the issue is this: What do the words “final form” mean when they refer to bills going to a vote?

The question arose when the Assembly was accused of passing more than 90 bills that had been amended less than 72 hours before their house-of-origin deadline. “Final form is the version of the bill that is voted on by both houses of the Legislature before the bill is sent to the governor, therefore it does not apply to bills still in the house of origin,” said Assembly Chief Clerk E. Dotson Wilson in a statement.

The Proposition 54 supporters were not pleased.

Sam Blakeslee, a former Assembly Minority Leader and state Senator, co-sponsored Proposition 54 along with Charles Munger Jr., a Republican activist, financier and Stanford University physicist.

A coalition funded by Munger and formed by supporters of Proposition 54 wrote letters to Gov. Brown and Senate Leader Kevin de León last week, declaring that any statute passed in violation of the Transparency Act can be invalidated. Their complete letters can be found here.

“Unfortunately, the Assembly has taken the position that Proposition 54 only applies to a vote in the second house that passes a bill. As explained below, this is a clearly erroneous interpretation,” they wrote Gov. Brown on June 7, noting that the Senate was following the provisions of Proposition 54.

Failing to adhere to Proposition 54, they added, could wind up “jeopardizing the constitutional validity of the bills that reach your desk for signature (including bills sponsored by your Office),”  which means Brown could be “placed in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to veto a good bill passed pursuant to an unconstitutional process.”

While the office of Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León agreed that the language isn’t specific to house of origin votes, the Senate complied with the proposition’s 72-hour requirement in the passing of recent legislation.

Blakeslee applauded De León on his commitment to transparency. “We expect our legislative leaders to fight for transparency, not fight against it,” Blakeslee said.

Blakeslee and fellow supporters of the Transparency Act say the final form of a bill must be made available three days in advance of a vote in each Legislative house, not just when the bill has moved out of the house of origin.

They raised the possibility of court challenges if they perceive violations.

“It is shocking that the Legislature is willing to change the rules to continue a practice of operating in secrecy,” Blakeslee said, noting the potential for a court fight.

He said, “we’re hoping that through continued dialogue and negotiation that this issue will be resolved without needing to go to court. But we stand ready to reach out for relief from the judiciary, if that is necessary.”