Lawmakers now can hijack measures with impunity
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sacramento, CA — As the California Legislature careens into its final 24 hours of the 2006 session, numerous, often far-reaching measures are being hastily rewritten and hurriedly approved with little, if any, review.
August is the month when Capitol hallways are choked with lobbyists feverishly trying to persuade lawmakers to kill or pass bills affecting their clients.
It’s also the month of gut and amend, a practice lawmakers annually pledge to curtail and then, in the final weeks of the legislative session, enthusiastically embrace. Routinely, senators and Assembly members gut bills — remove the existing language — and transform them into something new.
This week, for example, a bill dealing with domestic violence became one on physical therapists. A bill on horse racing became a bill relating to science teachers. Up until last week, a Senate bill being considered by the Assembly was intended to raise the minimum wage. But when it was debated Monday, it had changed to a bill allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
Lawmakers defend the practice as the only mechanism to address last-minute issues. Critics say it bastardizes the legislative process and lets special interests run roughshod.
“It’s one of the most pernicious practices in the Capitol because the public is locked out,” said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “Gut and amend is a way of delivering big for the biggest donors when the public’s attention and the media’s scrutiny is diverted by hundreds of other bills.”
Gut and amend is part of legislative tradition.
“There have always been some people who don’t introduce their legislative agenda until the last week and a half,” quipped Dave Ackerman, a veteran Sacramento lobbyist.
What has changed, however, is that in the past such last-minute measures had to be approved by special six-member conference committees. Any new changes had to be related to the bill being amended.
One former Republican state senator, Newt Russell of Pasadena, was known as “Mr. Germaness,” for calling improper amendments to the attention of his colleagues.
Over the years, use of conference committees to amend bills has fallen into disuse and lawmakers take more liberties with the rules.
A measure by Sen. Nell Soto, D-Pomona (Los Angeles County), began its legislative life Feb. 22, 2005, as a crackdown on unemployment insurance fraud. On Aug. 17 of this year, it became a bill by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, to allow family child care employees to pick a union to represent them in pay and benefit negotiations.
The Soto-now-Kuehl measure, SB697, is a tiny part of a more expansive Kuehl bill on child care that failed passage earlier this year. It is sought by the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which have inked a national deal to unionize such workers.
Kuehl noted that over the past week her bill has been debated and approved by two Assembly committees.
“Some people think these bills don’t have any hearings,” Kuehl said.
While last-minute gut and amend jobs do have hearings, most are held with scant public notice and last for only a few minutes. On Monday, seven Senate committees met in succession in one Capitol hearing room in less than 40 minutes.
Lawmakers say even a change as marked as a bill increasing the minimum wage by $1 an hour morphing into one allowing illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses is just a necessary part of the process.
“We’ve looked at this driver’s license issue for seven years and we needed to do something to get this bill passed,” said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, who carried the bill on the Assembly floor. “It’s not about shenanigans. It’s about trying to get public policy accomplished and sometimes we do that the best way that we can and in this case, we had to find a different vehicle.”
Bills that have died in committee are commonly revived using gut and amend techniques. Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, proposed a $60 fee on 40-foot-long containers that leave the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to pay for projects to improve port security and reduce emissions.
Opposed by a host of businesses from Anheuser-Busch to Hewlett Packard that would pay the fee, the measure was held in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
“The speaker (of the Assembly), who is a supporter of the bill, helped me revive it as a gut and amend,” Lowenthal said.
Despite their justification of the practice, lawmakers are hard-pressed to cite examples of good gut and amend bills.
The Information Technology Association of America contends it is one of those rare instances of a good gut and amend.
It convinced Assemblyman Jerome Horton, D-Inglewood (Los Angeles County), to create a new bill last Thursday to end the state’s requirement that any vendor bidding on a state information technology contract guarantee the work with a performance bond for 50 percent of the total contract.
The association contends the requirement is onerous, discourages competition for information technology contracts and that the state has other ways of ensuring that winning bidders fulfill their contract.
Change is needed now, the association argues, because an estimated $1 billion in information technology contracts are up next year.
“This isn’t sneaky. It’s not an end of session end run. It just took a long time to work out the issue,” said Carol Henton, the association’s vice president for Western states.