California Lawmakers Mobilize to Weaken Transparency Initiative

A transparency bill that would require 72 hours for review of legislation before its voted on is meeting a lot of resistance.


Almost everyone has some idea for fixing whatever is wrong in Sacramento, ranging from new campaign spending limits to a requirement that legislators wear NASCAR-style sponsor logos. Such reforms, however interesting they might sound in theory, never change anything.

The problem, of course, is the state government is so big and spends so much money that lobbyists will always try to control and influence it. Real reform would mean reining in the power of government—an idea that's never on the table.

Does that mean we abandon any hope of making state government more accountable? Probably not, but it's important to focus on reforms that work—rather than simply venting our populist anger.

One of the most significant proposed reforms since the passage of property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978 is headed toward the November ballot. Backed by former Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and funded by moderate GOP donor Charles Munger Jr., "The California Legislature Transparency Act" is far more significant than its title would suggest.

The initiative has such potential to shake up the way legislation is passed that legislative leaders spent the week trying to undermine it. Backers of the Blakeslee/Munger measure have submitted a million-plus signatures. It is likely to pass by overwhelming margins. Opponents' only way to derail it is to confuse voters by placing a similar-sounding, but weaker, measure on the ballot and passing a related reform in the Capitol.

The transparency act's main provision requires that "no bill may be passed or ultimately become a statute unless the bill with any amendments has been printed, distributed to the members, and published on the Internet, in its final form, for at least 72 hours before the vote" can be taken. It includes emergency exceptions.

Legislators often pass "gut-and-amend" measures in which the original bill's language is stripped out and replaced with something completely different. The transformed bill is rammed through in the final moments of the session. Often, legislators haven't even read the details of what they approved. No one—except for the legislative leaders and lobbyists who cobbled together the bill—knows what happened until it's too late to do anything about it.

The initiative also requires all committee hearings to be recorded (audio and video) and made publicly available within 24 hours. It gives the public the right to record hearings and floor sessions with their own phones and recorders. The measure is based on the simple concept that openness leads to better government and less bad behavior.

No wonder the Legislature is scurrying for a softer alternative. Many lawmakers want SCA14 to go on the same ballot. If this constitutional amendment passes with more votes, the Blakeslee-Munger initiative would not go into effect. SCA14, passed in committee, deals with the 72-hour transparency issue but critics say it's so laden with loopholes it renders the reform nearly meaningless—even after some last-minute amendments that bring it a bit closer to the initiative.

For instance, backers of the initiative argue that SCA14 requires a 72-hour notice only in the second legislative house. Instead of expanding transparency, they say, it would allow one house to game the system—and foist gutted and amended bills on the other house. SCA 14 supporters deny that, but the current language is convoluted. This much is clear: the initiative's language is far stronger than the alternative, which is why initiative backers remain committed to taking their measure to the ballot.

Ironically, legislators also used the gut-and-amend process to pass in committee Assembly Bill 884, which deals with the public-recording portion of the Blakeslee-Munger initiative. Because this is a legislative measure and not a constitutional amendment, the legislature can change any of its provisions with a simple majority vote in the future. By contrast, changes in the initiative would have to go back to the people for a vote. That's a key benefit for the initiative.

Current law prohibits the use of any assembly video in any political campaign ad. The initiative eliminates this prohibition and allows videos to be used by the public for "any legitimate purpose." AB 884 also scratches the prohibition, but uses fuzzier language—and because it is a legislative change, legislators can once again make it illegal to use video for campaign ads based on a simple-majority vote.

Opponents say some of the most important legislation would not have passed because the 72-hour rule would have given opponents time to organize to stop it. If that's the case, why don't we just dispense with the entire legislative process and let leadership hammer out all bills in secrecy?

I'm being facetious, of course. In reality, legislators should stop ramming things through at the last minute. They should respect the public and give all groups—pro and con—time to weigh in. That's how democracy is supposed to work. Clearly, the Legislature's latest actions show the transparency act is likely to have a real impact in the Capitol.