A Common Sense Reform for California

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On November 8, Californians will have to decide how to vote on seventeen statewide ballot measures. And the topics covered are complex and hefty, to say the least, including price controls on pharmaceuticals, recreational marijuana legalization, gun control, and the death penalty. To learn more about many of the statewide propositions, check out the Hoover Institution's every-other-month California publication, Eureka.

One, measure, however, despite the best efforts of the California Democratic Party and their labor and environmental allies, is proving to be quite non-controversial. This one, Proposition 54 or the Legislature Transparency Act, just seems like common sense - and this is coming from someone who is skeptical of the passing policy via the initiative system. To best understand why Proposition 54 is a straightforward, common sense good governance reform, let's examine how the opponents' arguments (as taken from their No on Proposition 54 website) hold up under evaluation.

But first, what does Proposition 54 actually do? The measure has three components: 1) it requires the Legislature to publicly post all bills for at least 72 hours prior to a vote; 2) it requires the Legislature to record and then publicly post within 24 hours all public legislative committee and floor sessions; and 3) it permits any individual to record and then share public legislative meetings.

"Prop 54 will slow down the ability for legislators to develop bipartisan solutions..." It is true that requiring all legislation to be publicly available for at least 72 hours prior to a vote will slow down votes on bills for at least 72 hours, but to claim this is a) antithetical to the legislative process and b) a problem for coming to bipartisan compromises severely misunderstands the legislative process and politics. For one, the entire process - including bicameral houses, the myriad of legislative committees, multiple floor readings, concurrent voting, and the Governor's signature or veto - is specifically designed to slow down bills to ensure they receive a variety of input and considerations. Second, a "bipartisan solution" that can't hold up to review and critique isn't in fact bipartisan or a solution. True bipartisan solutions require time to build coalitions and reach compromises. True bipartisan solutions withstand the test of time.

The real issue for opponents is actually that this will end the backroom deals struck between the Democratic legislative leaders, their allied special interests, and the Governor. Far too often, substantial amendments are put in front of the Legislature for an up-or-down vote with mere hours until the end of the legislative session, such as this year's AB 1613. Even the most adept critical readers don't have the capacity to comprehend all of the nuances of such amendments in the amount of time they are given. It is a classic "you have to pass it to know what's in it." And that rarely (if at all) results in solution-focused (let alone, bipartisan) policies.

"Prop 54 will increase taxpayer costs..." It's true; Proposition 54 will cost money (note: nothing is truly free in life). But opponents' make the amount seem budget-busting and detrimental to basic services. In fact, it is neither. According to the measure, the "Legislature's costs complying with" the measure's requirements "shall be included as part of the total aggregate expenditures" of the Legislature. The state's constitution severely restricts the Legislature's budget and its annual growth. So, for one, the costs to comply with Proposition 54 will never be funds that otherwise could have been used for K-12 education, fixing roads, or protecting the environment. It is money that could have been spent on Legislative office supplies or Legislative staff salaries and benefits. Secondly, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, the estimated costs are quite small - less than 1% of the Legislature's annual budget (which itself is less than 1% of the state's General Fund). So this measure will cost taxpayers less than 1% of less than 1% of the state's main operating budget - a small price to pay for some transparency in Sacramento.

"...will give powerful lobbyists and well-funded special interests time to launch campaigns to attack..." Sure, requiring a 72 hour wait period will allow people to actually read the bill to know what it does. And some people will not like it and try to fight it. But that's the legislative process. And that's why we elect representatives. The real problem opponents have, which include labor and environmental groups - the two most power special interests in Sacramento thanks to Democratic one-party rule - is that Proposition 54 opens the process up to give all interests, including individuals, the ability to voice their opinions before a vote occurs. Deals made behind closed doors are the status quo. A post-Proposition 54 will still have backroom deals, but those deals will have to withstand the critiques of transparency. So, while this statement probably is true, it's a good thing, not a bad one; not to mention a bit hypocritical as Proposition 54's opponents are funded by the most power and most well-funded of California's special interests.

The great irony, of course, is that this measure didn't have to be on the ballot. Assembly member Kristin Olsen introduced the 72 hour rule three times during her tenure in the State Assembly. Each time the bill died - and each without a publicly recorded vote because of a sly legislative trick to kill bills called the Suspense File. If this had passed via a legislative vote, legislators could have been amended in the future with a legislative vote. But if Proposition 54 passes, only another vote of the people can amend it.

It is often said that sunshine is the best disinfectant and Proposition 54 will shine a bit more light on Sacramento giving legislators the time to actually read the laws they pass. To most, that's just common sense.


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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