Legislators should know better than to try to deny Californians their fair share of sunshine. We’ve grown accustomed to basking in the light of public disclosure. We like it. And after Nov. 8, denying us that sunshine could be illegal.
During her entire tenure in the Assembly, Kristin Olsen, a Stanislaus County Republican, has pushed for a law to require all legislation to be posted and available for public inspection 72 hours before it can be voted on in the Assembly or Senate. This reasonable rule has never come close to passage, even with the support of Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat. Clearly, too many legislators like to work in the shadows.
Now, those who agree with Olsen are going directly to voters. After gathering more than 1 million signatures, it is a virtual certainty the California Legislative Transparency Act will be on the Nov. 8 ballot.
This is necessary because of a gimmick called “gut and amend.” A legislator can write a bill about one subject, then empty its contents at the last minute and replace them with something else entirely. So a bill entitled “The Dog Food Safety Act” becomes something about bingo parlors or air quality. Worse, the process can take place in a matter of hours, with neither the public nor other legislators having a chance to read the fine print before voting.
The opportunities for legislative shenanigans are obvious. And Olsen found them unacceptable. After all, city councils, school boards and every other elected body in California must play by a more transparent set of rules; why not the Legislature?
So Olsen submitted three different bills and co-authored two others. All gathered more dust than support. But they weren’t ignored.
“They used my legislation to draft the beginning of the initiative,” said Olsen. “They agreed that if we could get it done in the Legislature, great! But it hasn’t looked hopeful.”
The initiative goes further, requiring all open legislative meetings to be recorded and posted online within 24 hours. It also removes rules against citizens taking their own videos. As it is, you can’t even take a picture from the Capitol galleries.
“I have met one-on-one with a number of members of the Legislature, especially Democrats,” said Olsen, who will leave the Assembly to become a Stanislaus County supervisor later this year. “I have met with people around the state trying to get more support for this – and I think that’s partly why we got an initiative going.”
With the people poised to weigh in, some legislators will offer their own alternatives. Bluntly, we don’t trust them.
“The Legislature is talking about this now because of the initiative,” said Olsen. “Amazing how that happens.”
We hope the Legislature stands down. If it doesn’t, we hope voters pass the Transparency Act Why? Because it’s unlikely the Legislature will offer anything approaching a “clean measure.”
Olsen describes “clean” as a law without various conditions and loopholes. For instance, legislators might prefer a bill requiring only 24 hours posting instead of 72. They might exempt bills related to the budget – and most are. They might require the main bill to be posted for 72 hours, but exempt amendments and riders. All such conditions unacceptably block the sun, muddy the water.
People who care about actual transparency – like the League, Common Cause, California Forward, the First Amendment Coalition, the California Business Roundtable, five different chambers of commerce, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and many more – could see through such a move. So can we.