Something was different this year.
As lawmakers in Sacramento approached the last night of their session—the final opportunity to pass or kill bills for the year—they had had three days to figure out how to vote.
Three days may not sound like much, given the magnitude of the decisions involved in shaping policy for 39 million Californians. But it’s three more days than lawmakers used to have to make up their minds on some measures.
That’s because a new law voters imposed last year forbids them to act on a bill until it’s been available to the public for 72 hours. While most legislation is published online for several weeks or months, every year lawmakers write some new ones at the last minute, leaving almost no time for the public—or even their colleagues in the Legislature—to scrutinize the proposals.
The new routine was met with mixed reviews as lawmakers pounded through hundreds of proposals before adjourning in the wee hours Saturday.
“It takes a lot of tension out of the Legislature in the last week because we don’t have to be jammed with new bills that we haven’t read,” said Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose. “When you get stuff that’s written, like, two hours before, it’s tough to decide what’s best for your constituents.”
Beall said the three-day requirement helped him secure enough votes to pass a landmark package of bills intended to supply California with more affordable housing. It pushed the sponsoring lawmakers to explain the proposals earlier, he said, and answer questions. And when it came time to vote on the complex plan to raise real estate fees and streamline environmental reviews, Beall said, his colleagues were confident that no new wrinkle had been slipped in at the last minute.
“It gives us a little more comfort level in voting for something like this that is very complex,” he said.
On the other hand, Senate leader Kevin de León blamed the three-day rule for torpedoing one of his key bills, saying it gave him less time to negotiate. Powerful unions and utility companies opposed his proposal for all electricity in California to come from clean, renewable sources, and the Assembly declined to take it up for a vote.
“It’s taken away a lot of the creativity in terms of last-minute, last-second negotiations,” said de León, a Los Angeles Democrat. “People don’t understand: Seventy-two hours is like dog years during the last week of the legislative session. Seventy-two hours is like three months.”
Eliminating such last-minute deals was exactly the point, said Charles Munger, Jr., a Republican activist who spent nearly $11 million on the campaign for the law, which was Proposition 54 on the statewide ballot in 2016. Bills that can’t withstand three days of public review are probably not good for the public, he said.
“I think the process [this year] has worked better,” Munger said. “I’m pleased so far, and I will find out in due course if there were any problems.”
A fellow proponent of the initiative, former state lawmaker Sam Blakeslee, raised concern that the Legislature is not following its requirement to allow people to video-record legislative proceedings. The initiative says the Legislature must allow people to record and, by next year, make videos available online. Blakeslee, a Republican from San Luis Obispo, said a rule the Legislature has proposed since the new law kicked in could limit access for people who want to make their own recordings.
“We’re still working to help the Legislature come up with the right approach,” said Blakeslee.
Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) said that overall the new law has brought more transparency to the lawmaking process. But as the frenzy to pass bills reached a crescendo late Friday night, Nielsen complained that there remain ways to obfuscate.
“We are having policy committee hearings as we speak,” he said around 9 p.m.
Committees on banking, education and health held night hearings Friday on bills re-written just a few days earlier. That gave lawmakers scant opportunity—or none—for meaningful input, Nielsen said.
The law does not address how much time must pass between a committee hearing and a floor vote. It just says that before the bill goes to the floor, it must be published online for at least three days.
That’s a game changer for the hundreds of lobbyists who pack Capitol hallways in the final days of the lawmaking year. They’re used to urging legislators to make minor tweaks and do wholesale re-writes all night long.
Now, lobbyist Paul Bauer observed as he waited outside the Senate chamber, “You can’t ask them to change the bill. They won’t do it.”