Possible Legislative Process Reforms

California LegislatureBy Chris Micheli

Capitol observers have often complained about certain aspects of California’s legislative process. I asked some of my lobbying colleagues, as well as staff in the Legislature from both houses and both political parties, regarding possible reforms to the state’s legislative process that should be considered.

By far, the most common criticisms of the process by both lobbyists and staff concern the budget process. The next most popular topic concerns committees. While I did not conduct a formal poll, it was interesting how both staff and lobbyists expressed similar concerns about the legislative process. Based upon the suggestions made, the following are some of the collective reforms suggested for improving California’s legislative process.

Budget Process and Bills

Based upon the feedback provided, one reform could be to require the budget conference committee to follow the general rule used by conference committees, which would provide that a bill not be considered as a budget trailer bill unless the subject matter of the proposed trailer bill has been heard and approved in the policy committee(s) that have subject matter jurisdiction in both houses of the Legislature. In other words, budget trailer bills should have to be heard and voted upon in policy committees, in addition to the relevant budget subcommittees.

Another reform would be to require budget trailer bills be adopted prior to the commencement of the new fiscal year, which would mean by June 30, or within 15 calendar days of passage of the main budget bill.

Others believe that budget subcommittees should be required to hear from all departments, boards and commissions under their purview. It has often surprised Capitol observers how many departmental budgets are placed on “consent” on a budget subcommittee’s agenda.

An additional reform would be to require a separate trailer bill for each topic, rather than allowing multiple, unrelated provisions in a single trailer bill. As such, the germaneness rule would be strictly enforced by each house when it comes to budget trailer bills.

There is also a strong sentiment that there only be one Budget Act per legislative year. Thereafter, any changes to that Budget Act would be considered as normal appropriations bills and be subject to a 2/3rds vote requirement.

An interesting reform suggested is that the Governor’s proposed trailer bills be introduced by the Budget Committees, allowing them to be in print for the public to see and for budget and policy committees to analyze, debate and hear public testimony on before votes can be taken.

Committees

The second most common area of concern expressed by legislative staff and lobbyists alike is the dreaded “two and two rule,” which substantially curtails substantive testimony before legislative policy committees. Most observers suggest eliminating this rule or at least increasing the number of persons who can testify and for how long they can do so.

While witnesses should be admonished to keep their remarks brief and not to repeat testimony already provided, substantive testimony should not be limited by the policy committees, particularly those in a bill’s house of origin. Moreover, the rules on testimony should be consistent with all Assembly and Senate standing committees.

Additionally, there should be reasonable and standardized deadlines in both houses for submitting letters to the policy committees. Most committees’ deadlines are a week before the bill’s scheduled hearing, although some are shorter and some are longer (e.g., one Senate committee requires position letters 12 days in advance of the hearing).

Another reform is to reduce the number of committees that any legislator can sit on. This has been suggested to limit the amount of overlap for legislators and so that they will hopefully remain for the duration of the committee hearings for which they are a member. The most common recommendation was three standing committees.

One helpful suggestion is to require all committees to post support and oppose letters online prior to a bill’s hearing.

In addition, most staff and lobbyists suggested that neither intent bills nor spot bills should not be voted on. In other words, there must be a substantive policy change for votes to be cast on bills in committees or on the floors.

Finally, a reform would require proportionate representation of legislators on each committee.

Fiscal Bills

A recommended reform is to amend Joint Rule 10.5 that provides guidance to the Legislative Counsel’s Office to determine whether a bill is “fiscal”. The language of the current Joint Rule is specific and does not take into consideration all potential fiscal impacts of bills.

Appropriations Committees should be limited to fiscal issues and not act as a policy committee that defeats bills on a policy basis after the bills have already passed a policy committee. In other words, the two fiscal committees should simply vote aye or no based on the bill’s fiscal impact.

Bills

A popular reform is to reduce the bill limits, especially now when legislators have a possible tenure of 12 years in one house and there should be adequate time to consider priorities.

Of course, like most legislative rules, a Member can petition his or her respective Rules Committee for a waiver of the bill introductions limit. The most commonly-suggested bill cap was 30 bills per legislator per 2-year Session.

Another suggested reform is that bills cannot automatically deem regulations emergency or to otherwise exempt regulations from the formal rulemaking process covered by the state’s Administrative Procedure Act. This is necessary to ensure public participation in the rulemaking process.

Floor Process

A popular reform is that no resolutions may be considered for floor debate during the final week of Session. Any resolution to be considered must be on consent that week so that the Members’ limited time on the Floors is spent processing the hundreds of bills during the last week of Session, rather debating resolutions.

Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.

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