How Prop. 54 Works
Proposition 54 was enacted to give Californians greater access to their State Legislature and ensure a more orderly and informed process of passing laws.
Before Prop. 54, an average Californian voter had few options to figure out what their elected representatives were doing in the State Legislature. In fact, even the legislators were often uninformed about what they were voting on. As a result, legislation was often poorly vetted and Californians had little voice in our democracy.
So a diverse group of government reform experts designed Prop. 54 to improve the legislative process by enacting three reforms:
- Creating a public notice period for new legislation. Prop. 54 says that new legislation must be printed and online for at least 72 hours before it can be passed by either house of the Legislature. This allows every lawmaker to read the legislation before having to vote on it. It also allows every Californian to read the legislation online and contact their representatives if they wish to make their voice heard.
- Putting every legislative meeting online. Prop. 54 says any meeting of the Legislature that is already supposed to be open to the public should be recorded and posted online. This ensures that every Californian can watch the discussions that lead to legislative action, without having to repeatedly travel to Sacramento.
- Guaranteeing the right of individuals to create and share records of open public legislative meetings. Since legislative meetings are supposed to be public forums, Prop. 54 says Californians can record them with their phones or other devices to share with their friends or the general public. This allows Californians to share news from the State Capitol and help keep the public informed.
What You Can Expect
So, now that California’s voters passed Prop. 54 into law, here’s what the public can expect from their Legislature:
- If you’re tracking a piece of legislation, and it’s rewritten or modified, you will always have at least 72 hours’ notice to call your legislator or make your voice heard, before it can be passed by either house. Before Prop. 54, that legislation could have been entirely rewritten and passed by the Legislature in the span of a few minutes, or in the dead of night, before you had any way of knowing about it.
- If a committee in the Legislature takes some action that you’re interested in, you don’t have to travel to Sacramento to watch it in person. And you don’t have to know about it ahead of time. You can simply go online, look up the meeting by date and committee, and watch it from home. Before Prop. 54, figuring out what a committee did to a bill you cared about often meant traveling to Sacramento and sitting through hours of proceedings – because many meetings were not posted online. If you were tracking a particular bill through the legislative process, you may have to travel to Sacramento a dozen or more times in a single year. Prop. 54 allows you to stay home, as long as you have Internet service. Committee meetings are posted online within 24 hours of adjournment. (This provision will go into effect January 1, 2018).
- If you are attending a meeting of the Legislature in person, and you want others to know about it, you can record it yourself with your phone or any other device (so long as it doesn’t cause a disruption), and email it to friends, post on social media, or otherwise share it. This allows you to help keep the public informed, while catching anything that the “official” video record might miss.
Why was Prop. 54 needed?
Before Prop. 54 was enacted, the operations of the Legislature were often secretive and last-minute, where only a few insiders really knew what policies were moving forward before it was too late to do anything about it.
It was routine for the Legislature’s leaders to rewrite bills at the last minute, then require the rank-and-file legislators to vote on the new language before anyone had time to read it. These last-minute rewrites (sometimes called “gut-and-amends”) were typically rushed through the process with little to no public oversight, at the behest of interest groups and lobbyists.
In addition to creating policies with little vetting, this practice also made it impossible for Californians to hold their elected representatives accountable. How could Californians hold their representatives accountable for casting a particular vote, when lawmakers could honestly say they had no way of knowing what was in the bill?
And, even when proposed legislation was publicly discussed, those meetings were often inaccessible to most of the public. The Constitution says legislative proceedings must be open to the public. But in practice, many of those proceedings required you to attend in person, or be left out entirely. Some of the Legislature’s committee meetings were broadcast on the California Channel, but many were not. So, to keep track of legislation, most Californians would have to drive or fly to Sacramento a dozen or more times in a single year, each time to sit through hours of proceedings. (And even if you did all that, the bill might still get rewritten outside committee and rushed to a vote before anyone could read it).
It’s no wonder virtually all of the people who attend committee meetings are lobbyists, spokespeople, or other individuals funded by interest groups to be there.
As a result, most of California’s lawmaking was taking place in the dark, contrary to the principles of democratic governance and responsible lawmaking.
That is why a diverse coalition of government experts, taxpayer groups, and others advocated passing Prop. 54 — which was passed by the voters in all 58 counties of California. Prop. 54 ensures legislative proceedings are conducted fairly and openly, and enables the public to observe and share what is happening in the Legislature so the public can more fully participate in the democratic process.