EDITORIAL: Legislature -- again -- does its work in the dark

The Fresno BeeSeptember 16, 2013 

State Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, left, and and Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, look over a driver's license as the state Senate debated an immigrant driver's license bill, at the Capitol in Sacramento Thursday.

RICH PEDRONCELLI — AP

This year's legislative session was different from many in the past. The budget was approved early, so state finances didn't intrude into the September deliberations. With control of both houses, Democrats and their labor allies got much of what they wanted, and they got it early.

The upside -- possibly the only one -- is that state employee unions didn't use the final day of session to sneak through a raid on the state treasury, as they have in the past.

In other ways, however, this session was sadly familiar. Too many bills were introduced. Too many were passed. The Senate and Assembly -- despite being led by members of the same party -- engaged in their usual cross-chamber pirate antics. Bills were taken hostage, sometimes for good reason, other times for mere deal-making. Several that got out late did so only because one chamber or the other agreed to terms of their release. We may not learn of those terms for weeks, assuming we ever do.

What else was familiar? Transparency was trampled. In the final hours, bills were gutted and amended, force-fed like a French goose and voted out with barely a glance by lawmakers doing the voting. Driver's licenses for some illegal immigrants? Check. A big change to the California Environmental Quality Act, at least for Sacramento and its arena? Check.

In an indication of the tension between the Democratic leaders, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez thanked the governor for his work on the prison deal and the Republican leaders of both houses, but notably neglected to mention Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. Steinberg did thank Perez.

At Steinberg's urging, the Legislature took what could prove to be significant steps to help severely mentally ill people, making clear that counties can use money from the 2004 Mental Health Services Act to pay for intensive outpatient care.

Noteworthy achievements included approving a minimum wage increase to $10 and taking a step toward allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. The Legislature also moved to regulate hydraulic fracturing.

Among the deals that didn't get done was a broader overhaul of CEQA. Business groups ended up empty-handed, unable to get to language that would curb abusive litigation by those seeking to use CEQA to extract project concessions.

Lawmakers failed to approve legislation regulating medical marijuana, leaving the issue for 2014 or perhaps an initiative in 2016. Democrats held two-thirds majorities, but did not raise significant taxes, as some feared.

One of the more far-reaching gun control measures -- a bill to require ammunition buyers to undergo background checks -- stalled but will re-emerge next year.

So now the lobbying begins on a governor who often seems impervious to lobbying. Lawmakers should set aside some of their lobbying to reflect on how they might have made this a more productive and transparent legislative session.

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