The California Legislature’s budget “trailer bills” have morphed into vehicles to make major policy decrees outside of the usual legislative process.
Conceptually, writing legislation to implement the annual state budget makes perfect sense.
In practice, so-called “trailer bills” have become vehicles to semi-secretly do things that might otherwise be difficult to do, often with little or no relationship to the budget. They are drafted behind closed doors and quickly enacted with minimal exposure to the public, the press and those affected by their provisions.
With the Legislature due to adjourn for the year in a few days, an array of 11th-hour trailer bills has popped up with major policy decrees buried in hundreds of pages of dense legalese. They include two major criminal justice changes, benefits for powerful public employee unions, punishment for cities that shun legal marijuana, and a new state agency with vast new powers to crack down on banks and other financial institutions.
The latter is contained in Senate Bill 819, which not only folds existing financial regulatory agencies into a new Department of Financial Protection and Innovation but would enact a California Consumer Financial Protection Law to “protect Californians from financial abuses in the marketplace for financial products and services.”
The newly empowered agency would, it’s said, fill the vacuum left by President Donald Trump’s pullback on federal financial regulation.
The most sweeping of the criminal justice changes, embodied in Senate Bill 823, would repeal a new law that shifts handling of juvenile offenders from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to a new department under the Health and Human Services Agency. Instead, under SB 823 the state would rid itself of all juvenile offenders and shift their care and confinement to counties.
The proposal originated with Gov. Gavin Newsom on the theory that keeping juvenile offenders close to their families would result in better rehabilitation outcomes, but counties have not yet agreed to accept the responsibility, even though they would receive state funds.
Another measure, Senate Bill 824, would eliminate 23 fees now imposed on those convicted of crimes on the rationale that forcing them to pay fees while facing fines and possible imprisonment amounts to taxes on the poor.
Provisions found in other late-blooming trailer bills:
—Senate Bill 820, a very long and detailed “omnibus education bill,” furthers the union-led drive to hamstring charter schools by putting a lid on payments to charters that offer remote learning, rather than through classrooms, even though most public schools are teaching remotely these days.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat who is the Capitol’s leading education reform advocate, is sharply critical of the limit, saying “It’s not a good idea not to fund the students.”
Also buried in SB 820 is language that would indirectly prohibit the University of California from contracting-out building maintenance work, a boost to the unions that represent many UC workers. It would prohibit UC from tapping state construction funds if they didn’t use staff workers for all maintenance.
—Senate Bill 815 would order the creation of a “tax voucher” program aimed at enticing personal and corporate taxpayers to pre-pay future taxes, thus providing the state with more money to deal with projections of multi-year deficits. In effect, the state would be borrowing money from taxpayers.
—Senate Bill 827 would deny cities that prohibit commercial marijuana cultivation and sales from receiving law enforcement grants from state taxes on legal pot.
All of these trailer bill provisions may have merit. But they should not be jammed into law in the final days of the session, bypassing the normal legislative processes. It’s bad governance.