BY DAN WALTERS CALMATTERS
JUNE 04, 2020 06:00 AM
Four years ago, despite fierce opposition from Democratic politicians, California voters passed Proposition 54, a constitutional amendment requiring the Legislature to be more transparent.
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters backed Proposition 54, which requires final versions of legislative bills to be in print and online at least 72 hours before final votes. It also requires the Legislature to make audiovisual recordings of its meetings and place them online within 24 hours.
It was aimed at the insidious practice of drafting bills in the dead of night, especially “trailer bills” to the state budget loaded with special interest goodies, and enacting them before anyone had an opportunity to know what they contained.
Lawmakers didn’t like the new law and have connived to get around it whenever they could. And now, a newly drafted constitutional amendment would not only undermine major portions of Proposition 54, but give legislators new authority to act secretly. They could even bar the public from their meetings, whenever the governor declares an emergency — such as the one Gov. Gavin Newsom has decreed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ostensibly, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 25 would allow legislators to attend legislative meetings and cast their votes on bills remotely, via webcasts or other electronic means, which sounds superficially plausible.
However, if enacted, it would go much further. It would allow proxy voting — a controversial practice now being employed in the House of Representatives — and give the Legislature authority to avoid posting videos of proceedings “if compliance is not practicable under the circumstances of the state of emergency.”
So, one might say, maybe all of those procedures might be warranted were a major calamity to befall California. But ACA 25 doesn’t require the emergency to apply statewide, but “within the state, or parts thereof…”
Therefore, were sparsely populated Modoc County in the northeastern corner of the state to have a wildfire serious enough for the governor to declare an emergency, the provisions of ACA 25 would kick in and the Legislature would be free to operate in secret.
Farfetched? The history of the California Legislature tells us that its members will fully exploit every opportunity to avoid transparency and thus accountability. Proposition 54 was written precisely to stop hide-the-pea procedures, such as misusing budget trailer bills.
The two men largely responsible for enacting Proposition 54 in 2016, former Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and wealthy physicist Charles Munger Jr., are blowing the whistle on ACA 25, saying it “guts the provisions on transparency in the California Legislature that the voters enacted by passing Proposition 54.”
“The notion that it would be possible for legislators ‘through the use of technology and without being physically present in the State Capitol,’ to ‘attend and vote remotely in a legislative proceeding,’ without it also being possible to record the proceedings and post them on the Internet within 24 hours, is a palpable absurdity,” they wrote in a letter to legislative leaders.
“That the mere existence of ‘a state of emergency declared by the president of the United States or the governor’ would justify excluding the public from legislative proceedings, eliminating the right of the public to record them, or relieving the Legislature of its obligation to record and post its public proceedings, all in violation of the California Constitution, is also absurd,” they added.
Absurd indeed. ACA 25’s chief author, Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, a San Mateo Democrat, and other legislators who have signed onto ACA 25 should be ashamed of themselves for exploiting the pandemic to undercut legislative transparency.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.