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California lawmakers' end-of-session end runs

Late every summer, state legislators hurriedly put new language into dead bills and pass them without public notice or budget analysis. Prop. 31 will help limit these end runs around democracy.

August 22, 2012
(Robert Greene / Los Angeles…)

One of the lesser-known measures on the Nov. 6 ballot would require state lawmakers to wait a modest three days from the time a bill's language is released publicly before they can vote on it. Proposition 31 has lots of other parts and pieces, some of them easy to like, some a bit more troubling, but in late August, as the Legislature guts dead bills to stuff them with language unseen by the public and rushes them to the floor, that modest three-day waiting period is looking pretty good.

As it is, Californians must endure the combination circus and horror show that is End of Session. It happens each summer, just before or just after Labor Day, as the legislative year winds down. Bills that have been hidden in the desks and minds of lawmakers, lobbyists and campaign donors and have avoided the scrutiny of public hearings and analysis are suddenly presented, negotiated in Capitol hallways and on the Assembly and Senate floors and quickly passed.

It's twice as bad in even-numbered years such as this one, because what's looming is not merely the end of the year but the end of the two-year session. For a huge swath of politicians, that means the end of their terms and the desperate need to get money, headlines and credit that can translate into reelection or election to a new office in November or appointment to a plum public or private-sector post at the end of the year.

Deadlines for introducing legislation are thrown out the window as place-holder bills are swept clean of their original language and filled with entirely new text covering entirely new subjects. These gut-and-amend bills will never see the rigors of the Legislative Analyst's Office, and most Californians will know little about them until they are signed or vetoed by the governor sometime in September.

Equally disturbing are the bills, still to take shape, on subjects the public has in fact been discussing for months, from a public pension fix to the reform of the California Environmental Quality Act. Lawmakers will argue that there has indeed been discussion or vetting, but these have often been merely sham "listening tours," devoid of actual draft bills up for discussion, or private "stakeholder" meetings, conducted out of public view among carefully selected interest groups.

All the while, at tony restaurants around Sacramento or wineries an hour's drive away in Napa Valley or the Sierra foothills, campaign donors reward Capitol politicians for their last-minute bills with parties, promises and checks.

This isn't democracy. Californians deserve better.

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