California voters in November overwhelmingly passed Proposition 54, a constitutional amendment to promote transparency by requiring all bills in their "final form" to be published online for 72 hours before legislators vote on them. It's designed to stop last-minute gut-and-amend bills where the leadership pushes through substantive measures that haven't been vetted—or even read by most members who vote on them.
It's no secret that many legislative leaders dislike the proposal. For years, reform-minded lawmakers have proposed similar measures—but they never made it before the voters. Opponents of the rule say they are all for transparency, but that requiring such a long period of time for the public and critics to review all bills makes it difficult to get complicated and important measures put together as the legislative deadline approaches.
One would think that Prop. 54's passage would have settled the argument, but a fracas last week in the Assembly suggests that core debates over the measure are far from settled and might soon find themselves hammered out in court.
The Legislature adjourned June 2 following the deadline for bills to pass out of their house of origin. Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), assured that bills coming from the Senate waited 72 hours before a final vote. But Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), is accused by Proposition 54's backers of allowing at least 89 bills to be voted on without having been published for a full 72 hours before the vote.
There's a question over terminology in the proposition's language: "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, except that this notice period may be waived if the governor has submitted to the Legislature a written statement that dispensing with this notice period for that bill is necessary to address a state of emergency … ." The issue involves the term "final form."
The initiative's proponents say final form means the final form before a vote in each house of the Legislature. But the Assembly argues that final form "does not pertain to a vote to move a bill to the opposite house and instead applies to legislation presented on the floor of the second house," according to a Sacramento Bee explanation.
The chief clerk of the Assembly issued a statement explaining that "Assembly bills will not be in final form until they are presented on the floor of the Senate." Proponents of Prop. 54, including former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), and moderate Republican financier Charles Munger Jr., strongly disagree with that interpretation and say they might go to court to defend what they say is the clear intent of the initiative.
One element of Prop. 54 that's not in contention: The section finding that bills in violation of the 72-hour waiting period could be invalidated by the courts. That's where the latest fracas resembles a game of chicken. De Leon clearly wasn't taking any chances with his house's interpretation of the proposition's meaning. Rendon could have, say, passed a minor bill on a shorter notice as a test case to see how the courts would rule. Instead, if it's true that he didn't wait the full 72 hours for the votes, he may have put dozens of bills in jeopardy if the courts side with initiative drafters.
Supporters of the rule applying to both houses argue that it would be incomprehensible to give members of one legislative body (and their constituents) 72 hours to review a bill and deprive the same thing of members of the other legislative body.
Critics of the "both houses" interpretation suggest that Prop. 54's drafters could simply have included the language "in each house" following the words "final form." But the initiative's drafters believe the plain reading of the initiative means that every bill must be in print 72 hours before each vote. Including the "in each house" language could have been interpreted to mean 72 hours in each house (for a possible total of six days), something proponents clearly didn't intend.
The media have been hard on the Assembly for its approach. "The Assembly's action is unsavory but unsurprising," opined the Mercury News in a recent editorial. "In April they adopted house rules that baldly ignored the will of the electorate by not requiring 72 hours' notice on bills that had not yet passed the Senate. … There's no basis for the Assembly's interpretation. It is neither in the spirit nor the letter of the law that Prop. 54 voters intended."
It's increasingly likely this dispute ends up at the state Supreme Court, with the stakes higher than ever. It will pit the intent of an initiative that passed by a nearly two-to-one margin and in all of California's 58 counties against 89 or so recently passed bills, which could possibly be tossed aside even if the governor signs them.
This article originally appeared in Calwatchdog.