The Suspense Files: California bills vanish almost without a trace
Shortly after last year’s presidential election, Democrats in the California Legislature drew headlines by introducing a flurry of bills attacking “fake news.” They called for more resources to teach media literacy, so public school students could better discern facts from the kind of bogus stories that proliferated online during the campaign.
Yet in the months since, all three of those bills have quietly met their demise, victims of the Legislature’s appropriations committees. Officially, the committees—one in each house—are supposed to pull the Legislature’s purse strings, weighing how much a proposal is expected to cost, and comparing bills against one another to establish priorities for spending state tax dollars. Unofficially, the appropriations committee is where bills go to die—especially the ones the ruling party wants to bury with little trace.
This month the appropriations committees quietly killed the last of the fake news bills, a pile of marijuana measures, a proposal to create a “pro-choice” license plate and another to allow cities to keep bars open until 4 a.m.—an issue few lawmakers outside of San Francisco seem to regard as a burning problem.
As befits a good murder plot, lawmakers target potential victims by placing the bills on what they call the “suspense file.” Then, twice a year, the appropriations committees cull through all these bills, allowing some to proceed to a floor vote but stopping many in their tracks. In other committees, lawmakers publicly vote when they kill a bill, attaching their names and reputations to the decision. But there is no public vote when the appropriations committees snuff out bills on the suspense file.
“It’s the closest thing that the Legislature has to a veto power,” said former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Los Angeles Democrat who chaired the appropriations committee from 2012 to 2014.
Sure, decisions are based on weighing the costs and benefits of the proposed policies, Gatto said. “But it’s also a cost-benefit analysis politically: How much does the house want to put a bill like this on the floor?”
Euthanizing a bill in this way shields lawmakers from having to cast a difficult floor vote—often choosing between a popular idea and one that aggravates powerful interests in the state Capitol.
A look at some of the dozens of bills that appropriations committees recently axed:
Making school spending more transparent: AB 1321 would have required every school to publish reports on how much money they spend per student. Civil rights groups said it would ensure that funds intended to help needy children are spent in their classrooms. But teachers unions and school administrators—influential forces in the Capitol—spent most of the year opposing the bill by Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego.
Water under the Mojave desert: Environmentalists backed AB 1000 as an attempt to block a controversial project that would pump groundwater out of the Mojave desert and direct it to more populous communities near the coast. The bill also had the unusual support of Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But labor and business groups opposed it, and the project developer, a company called Cadiz, is a big political donor. After killing the bill, Senate appropriations chairman Ricardo Lara released a statement saying the project had gone through extensive environmental review and the Legislature shouldn’t interfere. Cadiz stock then shot up 31 percent.
Protecting whistleblowers in their midst: State employees who report government wrongdoing are protected from being fired under the Whistleblower Protection Act—but not if they work for the Legislature. So for four years, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore has introduced a bill to extend whistleblower protection to legislative employees. And for four years, the bill has been buried by the Senate appropriations committee.
Blocking coastal oil drilling: After President Donald Trump signed an executive order that could expand oil and gas drilling into federal waters off the California coast, Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara introduced a bill intended to block it. Her SB 188 would have prohibited the state from approving new leases on pipelines or other infrastructure needed to support new oil and gas development. The bill would have cost the state millions of dollars in lost leases. Its demise in the Assembly appropriations committee marked a loss for environmentalists and a win for oil companies—and the Trump Administration.
Watchdogging the police: Prompted by a string of high-profile police shootings, Democrats introduced a handful of bills intended to create more public trust in police. AB 748 would have made public more footage from police body cameras. AB 284 would have required a public report on two years of police shootings in California. Law enforcement groups opposed both bills, but supported another that also was killed: AB 1428, which would have provided the public with more information about the status of complaints against police officers.
In a Legislature that processes thousands of bills each year, the two appropriations committees play a critical role in culling ideas—but many could have been rejected earlier if lawmakers were more willing to say no.
“There are pressures from lobbyists, pressures from leadership, pressures from constituents. And the path of least resistance is for members to rely on this end-game that plays out very quickly on a Friday,” said Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento.
“It allows a critical mass of legislators to get the outcome they want without having to put their name on that hard choice of saying no.”
That might explain why the Assembly appropriations committee quashed a bill that would have reduced the fine for rolling through a red light on a right turn from $100 to $35. Who would possibly want to vote against that?