Back in the 1970s and ’80s, Ralph Morrell worked tirelessly to make California’s Legislature more transparent in its proceedings, accountable to the voters and responsible in handling public funds. His efforts were quite honorable, but legislators often pushed back against him, upset that they would no longer be able to enjoy as much insulation from the public.
One of the late Morrell’s targets was “ghost voting” in the Assembly. This was an all-too-common practice of one Assembly member activating the “Yes” or “No” buttons at the floor desks of several other Assembly members who had previously left the Assembly chamber or even left the Capitol entirely. While “ghost voting” can still occur, it is far less prevalent today thanks to reforms pushed by Morrell and others.
Since Morrell’s exit from the political realm, others have taken up his cause: keeping the legislative process open and honest. However, we have yet to achieve a truly exemplary Legislature and some members of our governing body have continued to fight change over the years.
As Morrell knew, transparency and accountability to the voters are vital for a well-functioning democracy. Unfortunately, some members of our current Legislature are still trying to avoid public scrutiny by making gestures toward a more transparent government, while actually undermining real reform.
The most recent vehicles for some legislators’ deception are Senate Constitutional Amendment 14 and Assembly Bill 884, which appear to propose some transparency protections for voters, but really don’t. These measures are deceiving and, instead, aimed at protecting career politicians and party bosses.
SCA 14 and AB 884 allegedly address serious problems in the current state of lawmaking, particularly the “gut and amend” strategy that radically or completely changes a piece of legislation in the final hours of a session. This maneuver leaves little to no time for legislators to analyze and debate the issue, or for members of the public to provide their own views.
SCA 14 and AB 884 require only a 72-hour internet posting before a vote in the final house (either the Senate or Assembly), not both houses of the Legislature. This will continue to allow last-minute parliamentary shenanigans to subvert real reform, such as requiring 72-hour notice before any vote, in either house of the Legislature.
As columnist Dan Walters pointed out The Bee, “Minority Republicans have routinely introduced legislation to require a 72-hour waiting period before a final vote on legislation. And routinely, Democrats have killed it.”
Such tactics should raise suspicion in the minds of the public because, simply put, this isn’t just the usual partisan politics at work.
Steven Greenhunt wrote in a column in The Orange County Register that the Legislature’s proposal “pretends to deal with the 72-hour transparency issue, but critics say it’s so laden with loopholes it renders the reform nearly meaningless.”
SCA 14 and AB 884 also fail to guarantee that recordings from public committee and floor meetings of either house can be accessed and used by the public without exception. I ask: What are they trying to hide?
These loopholes and others leave serious discretion to the lawmakers themselves, rather than providing direct guidelines in the language of the bills.
Although an extended conversation could be had over the specifics of these loopholes, it suffices to say that the motivation behind the bills put forth by the Legislature has, thus far, been questionable at best.
In addition to the loopholes, the legislators who came up with this scheme ensured that SCA 14 would be placed on the upcoming, crowded November ballot, in direct competition with numerous other measures dealing with reforms, bonds and a whole host of policies.
From my perspective, the legislators who designed SCA 14 and AB 884, and those who voted for its passage, are being too clever by half; hiding behind a veil of feigned concern for transparency while simultaneously working against the best interest of the public.
I am in firm opposition to any attempt at reducing the voters’ right to trustworthy governance, so these bills both earned my “No” vote.
State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, represents the people of Fresno, Kings, Kern and Tulare counties.