Reforming State Government
Making the Budget Process More Honest
In 2012, the State Assembly and the State Senate each passed nearly 40 so-called budget "spot" bills. These are empty bills that contained literally no details. Assembly Members and Senators were asked to cast a vote for these measures to send them to the other house of the Legislature, where the specific provisions of the bills would be amended later.
Once the specific details were inserted, legislators would not have the opportunity to amend provisions that are particularly troubling. They would only be able to vote yes or no. This does not allow for committee hearings to be held, nor does it give the public the opportunity to review or weigh in on the plan before the entire Legislature is asked to cast a vote.
Ironically, these nearly 80 "spot" bills were passed by the majority party in the Legislature one week after the Legislature passed a resolution to mark "Sunshine Week" in California, which urges reforms to open the legislative and budget processes up for more public and media scrutiny.
One consequence of the passage of Proposition 25 (2010) is that substantive changes in the law that are contained in these "budget trailer bills" will all take effect immediately with only a majority vote in each legislative house. Prior to the passage of Proposition 25, in order for a bill to take effective immediately, the use of an urgency clause and a two-thirds vote in each legislative house was required. As a further consequence, the minority party is unable to slow down the implementation of questionable laws and thus allow more time for the public to raise legitimate concerns about the new policy changes contained in those bills.
The method of the Assembly and Senate passing their own budgets and then reconciling the differences used to be the budget process in the Legislature many years ago. In the late 1990s, the Legislature moved to a process that involved stripping out the appropriations from the budget bill and passing it for the purposes of getting the bill into the Budget Conference Committee.
Government reform groups and advocates of more sunshine in state government have routinely criticized this process. Recently, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation gave California a "D" grade on its "Transparency Report Card" when it comes to making legislative information available to the public.
Several reform measures have been introduced this session to promote the public's right to know exactly how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent and increase transparency of the budget process. These measures include:
Assembly Constitutional Amendment 11 (Gorell) The bill would: (1) require budget bills to be available to the public for at least 3 days before passage; (2) require the Legislature to convene a one month session in July of its second year of the biennium in order to conduct program oversight and review of all state programs on a rotating basis; (3) in the event of a fiscal emergency declaration by the Governor, require the Legislature to pass bills to address that emergency within 45 days; (4) for the purposes of a majority vote budget under Proposition 25, limit the definition of the budget bill to one bill passed each year that provides for the expenditures of the state for the ensuing fiscal year; and (5) Consistent with the Howard Jarvis vs. Debra Bowen decision, trailer bills must be identified in the main budget bill and must be in their final form in order to be passed on a majority basis and take effect immediately.
Assembly Bill 54 (Gorell) Moves ACA 4 of 2010, which will currently appear on the statewide general election ballot November 4, 2014, to the primary election date of June 3, 2014. ACA 4 would place a new limit on state spending and strengthen the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund requirements. Under a deal with Republicans, this issue was supposed to be voted on in June 2012. However, SB 202 (Hancock, 2011) moved the date of the vote to November 2014.
Assembly Bill 70 (Morrell) - This bill would provide that no vote may be taken in either house of the Legislature on the Budget Bill or other bills providing for appropriations related to the Budget Bill until those bills have been made available to the public for 3 days on a publicly available Internet Web site.
Assembly Bill 289 (Nestande) - This bill requires the Governor or Department of Finance, in concurrence with the Governor’s submission of a Budget to the Legislature, to submit a report that includes the following: (1) A list of loans made to the General Fund, their balances and due dates; (2) A list of payments to special funds or accounts from the General Fund that have been temporarily halted and their due dates; and (3) a list of the state’s key liabilities, including infrastructure, budget, and retirement.
Assembly Bill 291 (Nestande) - This measure will establish the California Sunset Review Commission, within the Executive Branch to assess the continuing need for an agency or department to exist.
Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 (Donnelly) - This measure would require an administrative agency to submit all regulations to the Legislature for approval. This measure would authorize the Legislature, by means of a concurrent resolution, to approve a regulation adopted by an administrative agency of the state.
Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4 (Olsen) - ACA 4 would increase transparency in the Legislature by requiring all policy and other bills to be in print and available online for at least 72-hours before any legislative action can be taken.