Requiring a two-thirds legislative majority to pass a state budget repeatedly led to late budgets and gave a minority of typically Republican lawmakers undue leverage in budget negotiations. So it’s no surprise that voters changed the law in 2010 to require only a majority vote, while leaving intact the supermajority required for tax increases.
One side effect of that reform that voters did not envision is the tyranny of the majority in a manner unbecoming of Democrats. Without needing any help from Republicans to pass their budget, the Dems can huddle in a room and negotiate with the governor, then dump hundreds of pages of amendments on lawmakers right before calling a vote. Last year, members of the state Assembly and Senate only had a few hours to check out the amended 777-page budget before voting.
Since elections have consequences, Republicans shouldn’t hope for a taste of the power they had under the two-thirds vote scheme. But to deny them the ability to offer ideas, or even meaningfully object in the public record, was a step too far in the opposite direction. Last year, Republican senators even boycotted a final budget committee hearing because the “deliberations” had become such a farce. The committee spent just one hour considering and passing eleven bills.
And what of the citizens and institutions whose fates are being decided? With no notice of a vote to cut a program, how are they to lobby and organize to protect their funding? For example, in a last-minute deal cut with the California Teachers Association in 2011, the power of school district administrators was diminished, but they had no time to explain why that might not be a good idea.
The Democratic Party — which is supposedly committed to transparency, public participation and freedom of information — needs to let all amendments become public for a reasonable time before a vote. Can you imagine the howls of injustice if the situation were reversed?
According to a survey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 other states require that proposed laws be made public for some period of time — from 24 hours in Georgia to ten days in Rhode Island — before they can be voted upon. In a report titled Fundamentals of Sound State Budgeting Practices, the conference recommended “rules requiring enough time to elapse between the reporting of budget legislation from committee and floor votes to let members read through the bill or bills.”
Assemblyman Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) has introduced a bill that would require the legislature to “make bills and amendments to those bills available to the public for at least three days before voting to pass them.” It contains exceptions for bills responding to a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
Democrats will argue that there is not enough time to make amendments available and meet tight deadlines for passing the budget, but where there’s a will there’s a way. Voters gave the majority the power to pass the budget after years of abuse under the prior system. This unexpected side-effect of secrecy and disenfranchisement is abuse of another sort, and only adds to the public perception of state legislators as petty, overgrown student council members who must continually be policed by voters.
And if this shadowy budgeting continues, eventually they will.
Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at 6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.