Openness act targets backroom deals

California political observers from various political perspectives routinely complain about the Legislature’s “dysfunction” and for years have proposed – and sometimes passed – good-government changes designed to make lawmakers more responsive to the public.

But there’s another idea that’s far more likely to make it into law. Called the California Legislature Transparency Act, the constitutional amendment would mainly require that “all bills must be in print in their final form, and available to the public on the Internet, for a minimum of 72 hours before a vote can be taken.”

Why does this little change matter so much?

The Legislature has a process for vetting bills through a series of committee hearings. Through that process, supporters and opponents have a chance to weigh in – and lobbyists have ample opportunity to muster their forces, and the media have time to write about it. Lawmaking always is messy and imperfect, but this leads to some public oversight.

But oftentimes some of the most significant matters get rammed through the Legislature in the final days or hours of a session through the “gut-and-amend” process, in which bills are stripped of their original language and transformed into measures that that deal with far more controversial and complicated topics. The revised bills are crafted behind closed doors with the aid of lobbyists and are approved even though few legislators have read the fine print.

Former Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, recalled the fight with the Schwarzenegger administration over a water bond in 2009. It was headed to the floor for a vote when a newspaper reporter spotted some provisions that had just been slipped into the bill. For instance, millions of dollars were being earmarked for a tolerance center, even though such a center had nothing to do with water.

“All hell broke loose,” said Blakeslee, a sponsor of the transparency initiative. Backers of the current system argue that somehow they do better legislatively when there’s less public pressure and they don’t have to worry about public outrage, he explained. But the opposite is true: “Secrecy breeds corruption and transparency breeds better governance.”

This measure would seriously shake up the Capitol. Initiative backers have a fact sheet with a list of recent gut and amends, including some medical-marijuana bills that had been gutted on the day of the vote. These are wide-ranging new laws that “upset two decades of medical marijuana regulation, restructured licensing and enforcement for a billion-dollar industry, and imposed new and unknown costs on the state … without any committee discussion or analysis.”

Requiring 72 hours notice would give the media and public time to digest what’s being proposed. It gives supporters and opponents time to make their case. It provides a disincentive for legislators to try to sneak through funding for bizarre things given the likelihood that someone will discover the language. The recording requirements will assure that public hearings are available to the public before it’s too late to do anything about it.

Read the entire article on the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s website HERE.