Flaky, frantic finale in Sacramento

If the annual summer budget showdownis the Legislature’s most reliable large-scale conflict, the last-minute backlog of bills trying to slip past the appropriations committees in each house provides a suitably catchy encore. Running the appropriations committee gantlet this week are some 450 bills already passed by full floor votes, which could conceivably add $5 billion or more to next year’s just-barely approved $145.5 billion budget.

Surgery performed by appropriations committees can be drastic, especially during periods of worrisome budget deficits. Bills not killed in committee can have their appropriations sharply reduced, entirely eliminated or otherwise amended to make them less costly before facing the final barrier of the governor’s veto power.

The frantic pace of the last-minute vetting raises concern. Rushing to decide on hundreds of complex bills could undoubtedly lead to faulty measures becoming law or worthy legislation falling by the wayside. Yet on the other hand, one can see the value of scrutinizing an entire lineup of pending fiscal bills in concert with all the other demands competing for scarce revenue dollars.

Perhaps if more legislators had big-picture information about rival spending needs when they voted to approve these bills in the first place, less legislation would be sent along for the last-minute appropriations logjam. At any rate, both human and bureaucratic tendency to procrastinate make it unlikely that belated frantic pushes will ever be eliminated from the legislative process.

What the appropriations committees face upon returning from August recess is a mind-boggling array of bills ranging from flaky to invaluable or even potentially harmful to the public interest. Much of the committee workload can seem like wheel-spinning. This week’s most significant appropriations matter is Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez’s bill requiring most employers to help pay for employee health insurance, an approach that Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggerhas already promised to veto because it does not equitably spread responsibilities to insurance companies and individual policy holders.

At the more questionable end of the spending spectrum are items such as the bill requiring state school officials to devise alternate graduation requirements for proficient students who cannot pass the state high school exit exam. The legislative analyst predicts millions of dollars would be needed to implement this bill. One might think these millions would be better spent to improve California education so all proficient students actually could pass the exit exam.

Another notably eyebrow-raising bill would establish a state fund paying reparations to Hispanics who were illegally deported to Mexico way back in the 1930s, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars according to the legislative analyst. Since the bill would allocate $200,000 to start a nine-member reparations board without actually putting any money into the payment fund, it is hard to see any valid point to that entire exercise.

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