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Public records act change an example of overstuffed bills
June 22, 2013, 05:00 AM By Laura Olson The Associated

SACRAMENTO — A fee for oil refinery inspections. The loss of tax credits for an Anaheim hockey arena that plans to lay off hundreds of unionized workers. Changes that loosen reporting requirements for domestic violence cases.

Those were among the two dozen issues crammed into a single bill that became a flashpoint for controversy in the Legislature because one of its provisions threatened to undermine the public’s access to local government documents.

“The wide-ranging provisions of this bill can be described as basically everything but the kitchen sink,” Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills, said when he described AB76 before last week’s floor vote.

The dust-up illustrates an issue that critics have complained about for years — the Legislature’s practice of packing provisions they would prefer not be publicized into essential budget-related and end-of-session bills that win swift approval.

The governor’s January budget proposal is traditionally followed by months of meetings. But lobbyists and others who track legislative action said it often is unclear which sections will remain in the final plan — or how they will be phrased — until days or even hours before final votes.

Last-minute actions give little time for outside groups to pinpoint conflicts of interest or potential problems.

“It’s impossible for the general public to follow, and it’s not what’s being taught in civics classes,” said Bob Stern, who previously served as president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies.

Even lawmakers may not recognize legislation once bills reach their final form.

Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, said he was surprised to find out that the final version of the bill included a provision that specifically addressed Anaheim’s Honda Center, which is located in his district. Earlier discussions indicated that changes would affect the enterprise zone incentive program generally, not the arena specifically, he said.

The final language prohibits the arena from receiving additional hiring credits if it lays off workers and then rehires new employees at lower wages.

“The state is essentially forcing a rewrite of a contract,” Wagner said in his floor comments against the bill. “That is not a budget item. That is an exercise of raw, really ugly political power.”

Another example of how quickly legislation can change is the path taken by one of last year’s budget-related bills, which was used to place Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax proposal first among the 11 initiatives on the November statewide ballot.

The bill, AB1499, was amended, passed by lawmakers and signed by Brown over a period of three days in June 2012. It moved the governor’s initiative, which became known as Proposition 30, ahead of others because it involved a constitutional amendment.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association challenged the action, but a judge rejected the request. Brown defended the ballot-order move and voters ultimately passed the measure, which raised the state sales tax and income taxes for those who make more than $250,000 a year.

The Senate’s top Democrats defend the practice of using omnibus trailer bills — the name given to bills that are supposed to enact certain aspects of the state budget. They said it is necessary and relatively innocuous, contending that most of the numerous components in the criticized public records bill had been considered during public hearings without any outcry.

“That’s our process. We only know if something is controversial or is of concern if stakeholders speak up,” Leno said.

Earlier this week, the Assembly voted on a new version of the bill that strips the language making compliance with the Public Records Act optional, and the Senate is expected to follow next week. The Legislature’s Democratic leaders also are embracing a proposed constitutional amendment to strengthen the public’s right to government documents.

Open government advocates and some lawmakers have called for requiring all bills to be in print and posted online 72 hours before they come up for a vote. Two constitutional amendments introduced earlier this year would have done just that but did not gain much traction.

Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Escondido, unsuccessfully proposed a constitutional amendment last year that would have required that all budget bills be made public 21 days before a vote, far beyond the few days suggested by other lawmakers. He also has proposed that the state create a two-year budget cycle, with the first year devoted to vetting state spending.

“Our process needs to be open, lengthy, and I think that 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, is all inside baseball,” Wyland said. “We ought to have them available for two or three weeks if we really want the public to examine it and understand it, and I think that’s one element of transparency.”

———

Associated Press writers Don Thompson and Judy Lin contributed to this report.

 

 

Tags: bills, budget, public, hours, state, which,


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