Thursday, May 03, 2007

How the legislature works: and doesn't

California Clean Money Supporters in Suspense



By Sara S. Nichols

If the California Appropriations Committees were a summer movie, it’d be a blockbuster. After all, they’ve got all the right ingredients: suspense, mass murders, graveyards. Unfortunately for me, I’ve never liked horror films—I can’t stand the suspense.

Today the California Assembly Appropriations Committee moved AB 583, the Clean Money and Fair Elections Act by Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) to the “suspense file,” leading me to wonder whether, once again, the suspense will kill me before we have public financing of elections in California. What rule, concept or decorum is actually “suspended,” I’ve long since forgotten. What I do know is that the suspense is not whether a bill will go “to suspense,” the suspense is whether it comes off.

And off it should come. As Susan Lerner, Executive Director of the California Clean Money Campaign, the sponsor of AB 583, said today, “the issue is no longer how can we afford to pay for it, but how can we afford not to pay for it?” Indeed, it is long overdue to inject clean public financing into California elections. However, this bill, coming as it does on the heels of (losing) Proposition 89 on last year’s ballot, faces a tough challenge in the legislature, even though it contains only parts of that initiative.

Sacramento insiders know that virtually every bill worth passing (i.e., every bill with a price tag) moves to “suspense” in Appropriations. The legitimate rationale used to be that bills that would cost the taxpayers over a certain amount of money per year would all be considered together. This process would ensure that California could afford the legislation it passed.

I have no quarrel with the theory behind considering these bills in tandem. I do take issue with the extreme secrecy with which these decisions are made. I’ve never understood why the handling of the suspense calendar isn’t a violation of the Brown Act (California open meeting law).

What it boils down to is that a handful of legislators can prevent the most important legislation in the state from moving forward without explaining their reasons or having to vote in public.

Here’s how it works: all the Assemblymembers and Senators who have their bills “on suspense” in the Appropriations Committee are forced to submit a secret (closely guarded) ranking of all their bills in order of priority.

It’s the Sophie’s Choice of legislators—“if only (sob) one of my (sob) bills gets to (sob) live, I guess it will have to be (sob) this one.” This ranking is then reviewed by a small cadre consisting of (if memory serves) the Appropriations Chair, the leader of the house, in private consultation with other members of the Appropriations committee, who decide which bills will come “off suspense” and therefore be granted an actual vote in committee.

Every year these “graveyard” committees bury scores of important (and less important) bills by having them never come off “suspense.”

Last year’s version of AB 583 came off suspense in a new form: without operative language and passed “in concept” off the Assembly floor and into the Senate where it fizzled out in the Senate Elections Committee despite the strong support of then chair now Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

The bill today was supported by over 20 activists and spoken well of by several legislators, including Assemblymember Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) who asked to be added as a co-author.

The Chair of the Assembly Elections Committee Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) also spoke highly of the bill, having been a leading co-author for years. He hailed author Loni Hancock as more than an author, as the leader of a movement.

Despite my misgivings about the process, if the fate of this bill has to be decided in secret, I’m thrilled it’s in the hands of the capable and trustworthy Mark Leno, in consultation with Speaker Fabian Nunez, who has also been a strong supporter in the past.

Nunez, Leno and Hancock have the power to give this movie a happy ending if they put their heads together behind the scenes and bring to the screen a real version of this bill, with enforcement provisions and the necessary funding source off “suspense” for the vote the public deserves. When will California have real campaign reform? The suspense is killing us.

Sara S. Nichols is a dynamic public speaker who has appeared on Larry King, Jerry Springer, the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and talk radio. She lives in Sacramento and writes from time to time on politics on snicholsblog where this article is being simultaneously posted.

From: California Progress Report
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