You might have heard some news lately about legislative transparency, referring to efforts to subject what goes on in the California Legislature to meaningful public scrutiny. One headline actually read “California Senate Approves Measure Requiring More Transparency.” While an average citizen might rejoice at this news, they should be cognizant of what Paul Harvey used to characterize as “the rest of the story.”
Fact is, the California Legislature has absolutely no interest in exposing to public scrutiny how it does business. Indeed, the only reason lawmakers have introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 14 (SCA 14) is to try to force the proponents of a much stronger ballot measure to the bargaining table in an effort to dilute the impact of this genuine reform. It is our hope that the proponents of the real transparency measure, the California Legislature Transparency Act (CLTA), decline the invitation.
On the surface, lawmakers’ SCA 14 doesn’t look too bad. It would require that bills be publicly available for 72 hours before they can be taken up for a vote and that visual recordings of all legislative proceedings be posted online. These are reforms that Californians have wanted for a long time.
So what has spurred the Legislature to pursue this needed reform? Have they suddenly turned a new leaf and actually desire to disclose to Californians what has, up to now, been transacted in secrecy and obfuscation? Hardly. They are looking down the gun barrel of a proposed initiative which gathered more than a million signatures and is on the verge of qualifying for the November ballot. Sponsored and financed by wealthy reformer Charles Munger, Jr., its requirement that bills be in print for 72 hours is airtight while the Legislature’s proposal has so many holes it resembles Swiss cheese.
We’ve seen the drill before. Citizens will clamor for reform but be rebuffed repeatedly by the Legislature. Then, someone puts a proposition on the ballot to achieve the desired results. Only then, does the Legislature find religion and admit there’s a problem.
Recall 1978. With homeowners angry, frustrated and scared of being taxed out of their homes, Howard Jarvis proposes real property tax reform in the form of Proposition 13. At first, the Legislature derides the effort and can’t fathom the notion that voters actually would support it. That is, until they start hearing from their constituents and seeing the polls. Only then, did the California Legislature hurriedly place a very weak alternative (designated as Proposition 8) on the ballot. But voters would have none of it. By a 66% margin they effectively told the Legislature thanks, but no thanks.
We strongly suspect that a similar message will be sent to the Legislature in the event that two competing transparency measures appear on the ballot this November.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.