SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California lawmakers worked in the dead of night in August during the final hours of the legislative session, approving last-minute policy changes that affect millions of people.
Activists are asking voters to outlaw that practice in November through Proposition 54, an effort to increase transparency in the Legislature.
The measure would require bills to be available for public viewing online for three days before the full Senate or Assembly could vote on them, make the Legislature record and publish videos of all public hearings and allow anyone attending to photograph or record them. Its chief backer is Republican donor Charles Munger Jr., who has contributed about $9 million to the effort.
Open government groups, newspaper editorial boards and the California Republican Party are lining up behind the proposal, but lawmakers are not. Neither is the Democratic Party, whose members control the statehouse and are hoping to win a two-thirds supermajority needed to raise taxes this election.
Supporters say the three-day bill notice will give lawmakers a chance to read legislation before voting on it, give reporters time to cover it and give Californians an opportunity to weigh in.
“The more people who participate, the stronger our democracy,” said Helen Hutchinson, president of the League of Women Voters of California.
The change would eliminate a recurring dash to negotiate, tweak and pass hundreds of bills in the final hours before legislative deadlines, a practice that comes under fire after deals worked out in late-night negotiations sail through a chamber without public scrutiny.
This year that included a deal to appropriate $900 million from the state’s cap-and-trade program, including a new mandate to cut methane emissions at dairy farms. The spending plan became public mid-day on Aug. 31, the last day of the two-year session, and cleared the Legislature six hours later among hundreds of other bills.
“The biggest decisions seem to be the ones being saved for the last-minute shenanigans,” said David Kline, spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association, which supports the initiative.
Opponents argue that giving public notice of bills would only benefit lobbyists. Former Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, a 20-year veteran of the Legislature, said Proposition 54 would give a few influential individuals more time to pester and sway legislators and dismantle bipartisan agreements.
“You have enough harassment from lobbyists when you’re in the Legislature, I don’t think extending the time for which they can badger you is really important to the legislative process,” Torres said.
Four lawmakers — one Democrat and three Republicans — wrote four bills from 2013 to 2015 calling for the same three-day notice. None of them received a hearing.
“The initiative process was made for this,” Munger said. “It doesn’t matter who controls the government, they’re never going to give you this.”
Proposition 54 would also allow anyone to record legislative proceedings, a privilege currently reserved for legislative staff and credentialed journalists. All public meetings in and outside the Capitol would be videotaped and the Legislature would have to publish those videos online beginning in 2018.