California Assembly violated transparency law, its backers say

Sacramento Bee

By Taryn Luna and Jim Miller, June 2, 2017


Advocates for a voter-approved transparency measure allege that the California Assembly violated the law this week in votes on more than 90 bills.

California voters approved a constitutional amendment in November that requires bills in the state Legislature to be published online in final form for at least 72 hours before a vote. This week, though, the Assembly voted on dozens of bills that had not been in print for three days.

The deep-pocketed proponents who put Proposition 54 on the ballot say the Assembly’s actions go against the will of voters who passed the measure last fall.

The Assembly has a different take. Officials there argued that the law does not pertain to a vote to move a bill to the opposite house and instead applies to legislation presented on the floor of the second house.

The Senate Pro Tem’s Office agrees that the rule does not apply to house of origin votes rendered this week. The Senate played it safe anyway and waited at least 72 hours to vote after amending the bills it took up, according to legislative records.

“Why is the Assembly working so hard to deprive the public of this 72-hour notice when the Senate is taking the exact opposite approach and embracing the transparency the public demanded?” asked former state Republican lawmaker Sam Blakeslee, who sponsored Proposition 54 with wealthy GOP activist Charles T. Munger Jr.

Blakeslee warned that Proposition 54 could invalidate any of the bills in question that later become law. Legislative records show 95 bills voted on this week were amended two or fewer days earlier.

One Assembly bill amended fewer than three days before its floor vote would repeal a law that made it a crime to use fake documents to conceal citizenship status. Another would bar the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from contracting with private, out-of-state prisons. The Assembly also passed a bill that would make it harder for employers to deny a job applicant based on a criminal record.

Blakeslee said the proponents are reviewing their legal options.

“We are prepared to go to court,” Blakeslee said. “Having said that, we want to be sure that we approach this challenge thoughtfully and at the right time.”

The Assembly voted on the bills in question as they worked up against a Friday deadline to pass legislation out of their house of origin. The lawmakers met until after 11 p.m. Thursday night to finishing clearing more than 400 bills in the week and avoid a Friday session.

The crux of the issue appears to be the interpretation of the term “final form” in Proposition 54.

“No bill may be passed or ultimately become a statute unless until the bill with any amendments has been printed, and distributed to the members, and published on the Internet, in its final form, for at least 72 hours before the vote” unless the governor deems that the bill is necessary to address a state of emergency, according to the measure. The text does not define “final form.”

The Assembly attempted to define the term in its house rules shortly after voters approved the measure. “Final form” means an Assembly bill presented on the Senate floor for a vote upon final passage and a Senate bill presented on the Assembly floor, according to its rules.

In a statement, Assembly Chief Clerk E. Dotson Wilson said the house is committed to providing transparency in the legislative process as required by law.

“Assembly bills will not be in final form until they are presented on the floor of the Senate,” Wilson said. “‘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.”

The pro tem’s office said it has been advised by Legislative Counsel that Proposition 54 “does not apply to house of origin votes.”

“By its plain language, it applies to the final votes in each house,” said Dan Reeves, the chief of staff for Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León. The pro tem’s office did not respond to questions about why it waited 72 hours after amendments to bring bills up for a vote this week.