California legislators routinely use two processes, the “suspense file” and “trailer bills,” to bypass full discussion and consideration of legislative proposals, and one big example, affecting the state’s criminal justice system, has backfired.
Two of the Legislature’s sneakiest procedures were on display last week as it began its annual sprint to adjournment.
They have names – “suspense file” and “trailer bill” – that may have little meaning to 40 million Californians outside the Capitol, but are critically important to those inside.
After bills go through the Legislature’s policy committees, most are routinely sent to the “appropriations committees” of both houses and most of those are placed in a sort of limbo called the “suspense file.”
Then, as deadlines for final action approach, the committees meet and their chairpersons run down the list of suspense file bills, simply announcing which will be allowed to proceed to floor votes (and almost certain approval) and which will “be held in committee,” the euphemism for a death sentence.
There are no public discussions, no real votes, no explanations of why bills are given red or green lights – and no fingerprints on the carcasses of those that die. Last week, legislative leaders made decisions in secret on the fate of 635 measures.
Then there are “trailer bills,” measures that in theory are enacted to implement the state budget. They qualify for the fast-track parliamentary treatment accorded the budget itself and therefore are convenient vessels for making political policy that has nothing, really, to do with the budget.
A prime example occurred two months ago when one of the trailer bills was loaded up with a massive rewrite of the state’s criminal laws, allowing virtually anyone convicted of a felony, even rape or murder, to avoid prison if they are declared in need of psychiatric treatment and they receive it for two years.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who has made softening California’s criminal laws a hallmark of his final term, backed the change but prosecutors howled that it was a get-out-of-jail card for vicious criminals and complained, with good reason, about the diversion language being buried in a massive “trailer bill” relating to social services rather than being openly debated and decided.
The backlash was so sharp, the Associated Press reported last week, that Brown now wants to modify psychiatric diversion, denying it to those charged with particularly vicious crimes and giving judges more leeway to apply it prudently.
“While nothing’s perfect, this version right now solves a majority of the issues,” Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, the new president of the California District Attorneys Association, told the AP after the revision was circulated.
The issue of mental health diversions aside, what happened is a shameful example of how the trailer bill process is being distorted to enact policies that probably could not make it if handled in the normal – and democratic – way.
However, there’s no reason to believe that legislative leaders and governors won’t continue the practice. In fact, even though the budget was enacted two months ago, 11 new trailer bills popped up last week, some truly relating to the budget but others new examples of expediency.
One provision, for example, would change state law affecting employees of one Kern County hospital; another would exempt California’s efforts on the 2020 census from state contract law; a third would affect San Diego County’s elections for county supervisor, and still another creates a new investigative unit to handle sexual harassment complaints in the Legislature.
Whatever else they may be, those and other pieces of the pending trailer bills have nothing to do with the budget and continue a distortion that becomes more egregious every year.