Dumpster fires and profanity in state Capitol

The California Legislature either didn’t read or ignored my column from last week on the toxic effects of one-party rule because, shortly thereafter, it held what can only be described as a dumpster fire of a last day of session. Then again, that would be an insult to dumpster fires. Or, as Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Murrieta, called it over a hot mic, “bull—.”

Here’s the recap. Last week, a Republican state senator tested positive for COVID-19. He, and any of his Senate colleagues who interacted with him, were banished from the Capitol for 14 days.

That happened to be most of the Senate Republican Caucus, and even if they subsequently tested negative, they still weren’t allowed to return to work. Instead, Senate Republicans were forced to telecommute and vote remotely even though the Office of Legislative Counsel said it is likely illegal.

Finding that dealing with their Republican colleagues was slowing the rush of bills passed under the cover of darkness on the last day of session, Democrats in the state’s greatest deliberative body moved to limit debate on new legislation.

Although the legislative calendar has specific deadlines for bills to be introduced and to pass in their house of origin, the Legislature gets around these procedural rules with tricks and pretenses. One of these is the so-called gut-and-amend, which involves taking an existing bill, gutting it of all its language, and amending it into an entirely new piece of legislation.

Another trick is performed by passing stacks of blank bills with no language in them at all, except for a single line of placeholder text. After the budget is negotiated in secret by the governor and legislative leaders, the agreed-upon provisions become “amendments” to the blank bills. These are called “trailer bills.” There are no hearings in policy committees and no opportunity for amendments or debate. There’s simply an up-or-down vote on each of them and they go to the governor’s desk.

This opaque process rewards holding back important, and controversial, legislation until the last minute. Why argue when you can simply bypass the process in the waning days of the session? California desperately needs legislative reforms that enhance transparency and that permits both citizens and legislators in the minority party meaningful participation.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.