Republicans Urge Spot (Budget Bill) Removal

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Budget bills passed Thursday await the actual budget. (Photo: John Myers/KQED)

They are 18 words, repeated over and over in 80 pieces of legislation, ones that provoked a testy debate this morning under the Capitol dome: "It is the intent of the Legislature to enact statutory changes relating to the Budget Act of 2012."

Such a bill is referred to as a "spot bill," in that it's an empty bill holding a spot on the legislative calendar... so that once a budget deal is struck, the actual details can quickly be inserted into existing bills and enacted.

Today, Republicans in both houses rose from their seats to decry this now familiar part of the state budget sausage making.

"Do not give conscience and sanction to this charade, this disgrace, this corruption," railed Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) during floor debate.

As with so many fiery political tiffs, there's some truth on both sides. The process of approving not-yet-written budget bills has become commonplace in recent years, a reflection of the tough political lift it takes to pass a state budget. While the vast majority of Governor Jerry Brown's proposed budget is examined at the subcommittee level in both houses, a number of those ideas will ultimately get rejected by the Legislature. Some ideas already have been nixed, most notably Brown's proposed cuts in welfare-to-work assistance, which required approval by March 1.

And so legislators then must craft alternative ideas. Some will get discussed in these same subcommittees, but others will only materialize in the final hours of leadership negotiations. The modern history of those high-level talks involved a final handshake behind closed doors in a "Big Five" meeting of the governor and the four legislative leaders from both parties. That process had to include Republicans, given the long-standing supermajority budget vote.

But Proposition 25, the constitutional amendment lowering that threshold to a simple majority, has changed that process. This will only be the second budget crafted in the post-Prop 25 world, and certainly last year's agreement also relied on a last-minute private set of negotiations.

But the majority vote budget has cut GOP legislative leaders out of those talks -- a change that undoubtedly helped spark today's floor debate lamenting the "spot bill" process. GOP legislators spoke out not against the weakening of their own power, but rather the power of each house -- as legislative rules say that once a bill is approved by either house, it can only accept ("concurrence") or reject the language written by politicians in the other chamber.

"When the Senate loads them up with whatever they're gonna load them up with," said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore) about budget bills that come back on concurrence, "you will not get to change what's in it."

While few Democrats rose to defend the process, those that did also took shots at whether Republicans were truly engaged in the budget vetting process that's been going on this winter.

"One of the problems we have when you talk about the process," said Assembly Budget chair Bob Blumenfield (D-San Fernando Valley), "is that a lot of folks in the minority party don't even take the time to show up for the subcommittee hearings."

But in fairness, those subcommittee actions are not reflected in any of the 40 generic bills each house that were sent to the other this morning (and the bills did, ultimately, get sent on a majority vote). In fact, the particular process that happened today -- the spot budget bills -- is reflective of an even larger quandary: controversial budget actions don't seem to be able to survive public scrutiny.

The reason so many spot bills are needed is because the eventual budget deal will quickly be queued up in identical legislation in both the Assembly and Senate. And the reason is purely political.

Once the bare minimum number of legislators in either chamber agrees to the deal, the vote needs to be taken immediately -- before constituents or interest groups convince a lawmaker he or she is wrong or on politically thin ice. Then, the bill is quickly tossed to the other chamber. That's why the eventual budget package is often a mashup of ABs (Assembly bills) and SBs (Senate bills), as the final deal waddles its way from one house to the other in search of the magic number of votes.

"You have to strike while the iron is hot," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. "There's often a moment... where you achieve a breakthrough."

But that also means that those "breakthrough" elements can be patched into a bill with no real public input (remember, there are two versions of every single part of the budget thanks to the "spot" bill approval today).

"It's a bit of a Catch-22," Steinberg said this morning as I pointed out the criticism of quick votes on controversial budget language. "The art of compromise, of course, is imperfect. And some of the interest groups can pick on those imperfections, in a way that can take a very fragile [legislator] coalition, a very fragile vote. And all of a sudden you don't achieve the public policy that everybody agrees you ought to achieve."

Whether the current process -- skeleton bills moved along to meet legislative deadlines and then stuffed with all sorts of budget fun and uglies at the eleventh hour -- is evil or just necessary, it should be noted that there's a chance all of this could change. A pending initiative written by the bipartisan governance group California Forward would, among many other things, require that all bills at the state Capitol be in print for at least 72 hours.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Capitolman

    Hypocrites they all have spot bills themselves.

  • Cyclstt

    Unlike the 80 budget trailer bills, legislative spots have to be amended before their first policy hearing and they have to be heard in the Appropriations Committees. As John points out, the problem with trailer bills is that they never have a hearing and are jammed through in minutes  while most of the Democrats voting for them don’t realize that there are very significant policy changes buried in the 100+ page measures. Many of those “Aye” votes wouldn’t support the proposed changes in policy given time to read, think and thoroughly consider them.

  • Mediamentions

    eI think we can all agree that Mitt Romeney is a definite leader in the Republican candidacy. If you need any convincing, here is is (http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=AQ8H0TBAPW32&preview=article&linkid=f11e9798-bab4-42c3-9519-bceeb4071a25&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d). What I don’t understand is why all attention is on the Republicans whereas I still think that the Democrats will easily win, if not for Obama’s popularity than by the infamy or many a face representing conservatives.