Scott Wilk: The legislative gut-and-amend season is upon us

Friday, August 19, 2016

[This opinion editorial was originally published in the Santa Clarita Valley Signal]

For parents and school children it's the end of the summer; for the Legislature we're entering into the “gut and amend” season as the constitutional deadline of Aug. 31looms and the two-year legislative session comes to a close.

Gut-and-amend is a process whereby bills have their original contents deleted and replaced with language completely unrelated to the original subject matter.

On occasion this is necessary because an issue has arisen after the legislative deadline that needs to be addressed.

However, 98 percent of the time, it's used by special interests and their willing accomplices in legislative leadership to circumvent public scrutiny on proposals that wouldn't prevail if it were properly vetted in a transparent, public manner.

It doesn't happen once or twice, but we will be presented with scores of bills in the closing days of session that have never seen the light of day.

These bills circumvent the committee process, ensuring that neither the public nor even legislators have a reasonable opportunity to review the proposal.

The Rules Committee simply “waives” the rules and brings the proposal to the floor. The procedure is call Without Reference to File or “WORF.”

The most egregious gut-and-amend happened during my freshman year. Then-Senate Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg. D-Sacramento, had a bill, SB 743, to expedite the building of the new arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.

The bill did two things: allowed eminent domain of a downtown property; and expedited the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA, to ensure the arena would be ready for the 2016-17 NBA season.

Like many legislators I was opposed to the bill. First, I don't like eminent domain for private interests, and I think everyone should enjoy CEQA reform, not just rich, politically well-connected people.

The final day of session the rules were waived and SB 743 was amended to offer some minor CEQA reforms that applied statewide.

SB 743 was brought to the Assembly floor at approximately 8:30 p.m. Since the bill had statewide CEQA reforms, I joined 55 of my colleagues in voting “aye.” The bill was then sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

At 11:30 pm, a mere 30 minutes before the close of session for the year, we were presented a bill, AB 852, by Roger Dickenson, D-Sacramento. The bill had been gutted, and the new language inserted into the bill sought to remove the CEQA reform we passed three hours earlier!

So those CEQA reform amendments were simply a Trojan horse to coax the state Assembly into passing the Sacramento Kings arena legislation.

It takes 41 “aye” votes to pass a bill off the Assembly floor. The final vote was 26 “ayes,” 35 “nay,” and 17 abstentions. So we killed the bill and allowed the statewide CEQA reforms to become law.

Clearly, gut-and-amends are an insidious tactic that erode public trust in government and produce results for special interests that often don't align with the public good.

But on Nov. 8 Californians will have the opportunity to end gut-and-amends by voting for Proposition 54, the Public Display of Legislative Bills Prior to a Vote initiative.

Prop 54 would require that a bill cannot pass until it has been in print and published for 72 hours prior to a vote. This ensures that the public and lawmakers have the ability to fully comprehend and digest the legislation being voted on.

In this digital information age we live in, it is especially appropriate that the initiative also requires audiovisual recordings for all legislative business – excluding closed-sessions – to be posted on the internet for public review.

Finally, Prop 54 would require these recordings be accessible and downloadable for 20 years, further increasing transparency in the Legislature.

As we wrap up the legislative session and approach a busy election year, I encourage you to use your voice by voting to enhance our democratic process and create a more honest, open and accountable government by supporting Prop 54.

We must end the cozy relationship between Sacramento elites and their special interest benefactors. An open, honest and transparent legislative process will forge better public policy and bolster people's confidence in government institutions.

Prop 54 will allow an informed public to hold policymakers accountable for their actions and stop the special interests from hijacking the democratic process.