The Suspense Files: California Bills Disappear Almost Without a Trace

In summary

As befits a good murder plot, California lawmakers are targeting potential victims by placing the bills on what they call the “waiting folder.”

Shortly after last year’s presidential election, Democrats in the California Legislature attracted securities by introducing a flurry of bills attacking “fake news”. They called for more resources to teach media literacy, so public school students can better discern facts from the kind of fake stories that proliferated online during the campaign.

Yet, in the months that followed, these three bills quietly met their demise, victims of the Legislative Assembly’s appropriations committees. Officially, the committees – one in each house – are supposed to pull the purse strings of the Legislative Assembly, weigh the expected cost of a proposal and compare bills against each other to set spending priorities. taxpayers’ money. Unofficially, the appropriations committee is where bills go to die, especially those the ruling party wants to bury with little trace.

This month, appropriations committees quietly killed off the last of the bogus bills, a stack of measures against marijuana, a proposal to create a “pro-choice” license plate and another to allow cities to keep bars open until 4 a.m. — an issue few lawmakers outside of San Francisco seem to regard as a burning issue.

As befits a good murder plot, lawmakers are targeting potential victims by placing the bills on what they call the “waiting folder.” Then, twice a year, appropriations committees review all of these bills, allowing some to proceed to a floor vote but stopping many in their tracks. In other committees, lawmakers vote publicly when they kill a bill, attaching their names and reputations to the decision. But there’s no public vote when appropriations committees stifle bills on the backlog.

California Senate floor, photo by Max Whittaker for CALmatters

“That’s the closest the legislature comes to a veto,” said former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Los Angeles Democrat who chaired the appropriations committee from 2012 to 2014.

Of course, decisions are based on weighing the costs and benefits of proposed policies, Gatto said. “But it’s also a political cost-benefit analysis: how much does the house want to put a bill like this on the floor?”

Euthanizing a bill in this way saves lawmakers from having to vote hard on the floor, often choosing between a popular idea and one that aggravates powerful interests in the state Capitol.

A look at just a few of the dozens of bills that appropriations committees have recently scrapped:

Make school spending more transparent: AB 1321 would have required each school to publish reports on the amount of money it spends per student. Civil rights groups have said this will ensure funds intended to help children in need are spent in their classrooms. But teachers’ unions and school administrators — influential forces on Capitol Hill — have spent most of the year opposing Democratic Congresswoman Shirley Weber of San Diego’s bill.

Water under the Mojave Desert: Environmentalists supported AB 1000 as an attempt to block a controversial project this would pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert and direct it to more populated communities near the coast. The bill also received unusual support from Governor Jerry Brown and US Senator Dianne Feinstein. But labor and business groups have opposed it, and the project’s developer, a company called Cadiz, is a major political donor. After killing the bill, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ricardo Lara issued a statement saying the project had undergone a thorough environmental review and that the legislature should not interfere. Cadiz stock then exploded 31 percent.

Protect whistleblowers within them: State employees who report government wrongdoing are protected from dismissal under the whistleblower protection law, but not if they work for the Legislative Assembly. So for four years, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore presented a bill extend whistleblower protection to legislative employees. And for four years, the bill has been buried by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Blocking of coastal oil drilling: After President Donald Trump signed an executive order that could expand oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the California coast, Democratic Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara introduced a bill designed to block it. . Her SB 188 would have prohibited the state from approving new leases on pipelines or other infrastructure needed to support new oil and gas development. The bill would have cost the state millions of dollars in lost leases. His disappearance from the House Appropriations Committee marked a loss for environmentalists and a victory for oil companies and the Trump administration.

Police monitoring: Spurred on by a string of high-profile police shootings, Democrats have introduced a handful of bills aimed at bolstering public confidence in the police. AB 748 reportedly released more footage of police body cameras. AB 284 would have required a public report over two years of police shootings in California. Law enforcement groups opposed both bills, but backed another that was also killed: AB 1428, which would have provided the public with more information about the status of complaints against police officers .

In a legislature that deals with thousands of bills each year, the two appropriations committees play a critical role in weeding out ideas, but many could have been thrown out sooner if lawmakers had been more willing to say no.

“There is pressure from lobbyists, pressure from leaders, pressure from voters. And the path of least resistance is for members to rely on this endgame happening very quickly on a Friday,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento.

“It allows a critical mass of lawmakers to get the outcome they want without having to put their name to that tough choice to say no.”

This might explain why the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee canceled a bill this would have reduced the fine for running a red light while turning right from $100 to $35. Who might want to vote against that?

Bernard P. Love