When members of the California Legislature pass legislation, they are, in effect, writing rules they expect everyone to obey.
It’s particularly strange, therefore, that legislators skirt, or even ignore, the rules they are supposed to follow.
Take, for example, what happened during the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
Under the state Constitution, legislators get $142 a day in tax-free living expenses on top of their salaries, as long as they are not out of session for more than three consecutive days – hence, the legislative schedule of being in Sacramento from Monday to Thursday.
Monday holidays interfere with that self-serving schedule. The Legislature’s time-dishonored solution is to convene briefly on Friday mornings, then flee and return the following Tuesday for another brief “per-diem session,” as it’s known.
It is, simply, bending the rules for personal gain.
And then there are the procedural rules, which supposedly govern the flow of legislation through the Capitol. But routinely, when those rules – having bills in print for public inspection, for example – interfere with what the majority party wants to do, they are waived, thus allowing major measures to be rushed through before any serious opposition can coalesce.
Now that Democrats have two-thirds supermajorities in both legislative houses, waiving procedural rules becomes even easier, so we should expect a greater flood of written-in-secret bills this summer.
Skirting transparency got easier two years ago when voters eliminated the two-thirds-vote requirement for budgets by passing a ballot measure that also applied the lower-vote margin to so-called trailer bills tied to the budget.
Yours truly and other jaundiced Capitol observers suggested that the trailer-bill provision in Proposition 25 could be misused to bypass procedural safeguards, and that’s exactly what happened. The Legislature has routinely placed token $1,000 appropriations in measures that had nothing to do with the budget, qualifying them as trailer bills.
Legislators used that subterfuge last year for a bill to bump Proposition 30, a tax increase backed by Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democrats, to the top of the ballot, thus enhancing its chances of passage.
It was a trick, and apparently an effective one, since Proposition 30 passed. But last week, the 3rd District Court of Appeal spanked the Legislature for using a “spot bill” – a shell without any legislative content – to suddenly enact a major change in election law on the fiction that it was connected to the budget.
Such a ruse “sets up a shell game,” the court declared.
You could say that about a lot of ways in which the Legislature bends rules while expecting the rest of us to follow them.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him at [email protected]