Scott Wilk: Transparency to the state Capitol

Friday, July 15, 2016

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

Although California is known for its sunshine, its Legislature fails to live up to the reputation when it comes to having a transparent legislative process.

Sacramento has been hijacked by political elites and special interests. Their governing model is an outdated, industrial-aged, top-down, command-and-control government in which they pick the winners and losers in the marketplace.

And by the way, the special interests always win.

The fact is too many deals are cut behind closed doors, and the processes articulated in California's Constitution are not followed.

We will not get better government until more light is shined on the legislative process, which will force political elites to engage in a more public and transparent process.

I am not alone in that assessment. The non-profit, non-partisan Sunlight Foundation gives the California Legislature a “D” when it comes to transparency.

Moreover, the Center for Public Integrity recently gave California an overall grade of “C-” in its 2015 State Integrity Investigation for transparency and corruption.

This grade also included a flat “F” in public access to information.

Since I was first elected to the state Assembly in 2012, I have fought fervently for greater government transparency and for the free flow of information to the public.

However, the majority party has a storied history of killing reform proposals that would shine more light on the legislative process and provide more time and information to the public so they can weigh in with policymakers.

For example, my first year during the budget debate on the Assembly floor, I tried to pull up a bill on my laptop. The screen read “Document not available.”

Policymakers were voting on a $103 billion budget that no one had read.

The public did not have the opportunity to review or comment on it.

But allowing openness and clarity is not the majority party's objective — it's to operate in secrecy, or just flat-out waive the rules, so they can deliver for their special-interest supporters.

While the worst of these practices is the state budget, the majority party also circumvents the legislative process by waiving the rules completely through re-writing measures deep in the legislative process in the final days of the session.

This practice is called “gut and amend,” and the purpose is to sidestep public scrutiny.

The essence of democracy is an open and honest government — and that's why, over the years, I have supported many such reforms.

Thankfully, the opportunity to achieve real legislative transparency is now in the hands of voters this November in the form of Proposition 54 on the ballot.

Transparency advocate Charles Munger Jr. and former Republican state Senator Sam Blakeslee sponsored Proposition 54, the California Legislature Transparency Act, and it's a positive step toward government transparency.

Prop 54 will require the Legislature to publish bills online and distribute them to members as printed copies at least 72 hours before a vote on a bill.

This not only ensures legislation is publicly available for citizens to read, but it closes a loophole that allows legislators to rush bills into law before any proper vetting or public comment can meaningfully occur.

Prop 54 also requires audio-visual recordings of legislative proceedings be accessible online and downloadable for 20 years.

It would similarly grant the right to private individuals to record and transmit public sessions.

Most importantly, Prop 54 would amend the California Constitution, which means the majority party cannot simply change the rules on a whim — it would require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature and then a public referendum.

Above the dais in the California Assembly chamber reads a Latin quote: legislatorum est justas leges condere — “It is the duty of legislators to pass just laws.”

To me, it's just as important to pass laws in a just manner.

By approving Prop 54, the people can do what the political elites are unwilling to. Let's bring openness, honesty and transparency to the state capitol.