This week, the Legislature passed a resolution to recognize Sunshine Week, encouraging Californians to participate in appropriate activities relating to open government and access to public information. Passing this resolution is an important and symbolic act that recognizes a transparent government as the key to a free society. I encourage my colleagues to honor their commitment to government transparency this week by voting for Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4, which will require a bill to be in print for at least 72 hours before a vote.
It is no secret that most legislators do not read the contents of the bills that are presented to them. It is not because they are lazy, but rather because they do not have enough time to read the tens of thousands of pages of legal text that come across their desks each year. One bill we received last year was almost 700 pages long, dictating how $86 billion would be spent. We received the final draft just hours before voting.
While dedicated staffers provide legislators with summaries and analyses of the bills they will vote on, I adhere to Ronald Reagan’s admonition of “trust, but verify.” I try to do my own homework as I am ultimately responsible for my votes. But trying to read dense bills line-by-line (such as the state budget) and cast a truly informed vote within hours – or even minutes- is next to impossible.
Last year, the Legislature’s majority party had to do an embarrassing about-face to eliminate an insidious budget-related provision that they approved a few days earlier. The original measure, Assembly Bill 76, suspended key provisions of the California Public Records Act. It would have made it more difficult for the public to compel local governments to provide data and documents.
If this measure was in force in prior years, journalists may never have been able to expose some of the scandals that have shocked our state. We may not have known about the corruption in the small city of Bell, where city officials received six-figure salaries for little work, or the former BART general manager who received $420,000 after she was fired.
The majority party could have avoided the scenario of voting for something before voting to reverse it if they simply gave legislators at least 72 hours to review the bill.
That is why I am renewing my call for the Legislature to pass my Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4 this year. The bill would require all legislation, including the budget, to be in print and publicly available for at least 72 hours before final passage by either the State Assembly or Senate. The only bills exempt from this requirement would be those required to respond to a state of emergency formally declared by the Governor.
Unfortunately, the majority party did not even give legislators the opportunity to vote on ACA 4 - or its Senate partner SCA 10 - last year, opting instead to place it on the “suspense file” in Budget Sub 6 Committee. I have sent a letter to Chair Nancy Skinner, requesting ACA 4 be brought up for a vote so that we can change our Constitution to allow all Californians the opportunity to review bills before they are voted on, thereby improving our legislative process.
Defenders of the status quo inevitably respond by saying that most bills are debated in public committee hearings weeks in advance. Yet political insiders know that the final details of significant bills – especially the state budget – are negotiated behind closed doors and then presented to legislators for a vote as quickly as possible to minimize controversy.
California can do better. The Legislature can start off 2014 on the right note by requiring a 72-hour review period before final votes are taken.
It will improve public policy. It will allow Democrat and Republican legislators to better represent their constituencies. And it will increase transparency and trust among the public in an institution that too often inspires neither.
Assemblymember Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, represents the 12th Assembly District in the California Legislature, which includes portions of Stanislaus and San Joaquin Counties in the Central Valley.