SACRAMENTO — “We want public officials to have literally millions of American citizens looking over their shoulders at every move they make,” said John Gardner, who in 1970 founded the good-government group Common Cause. He realized the best way to have a government of and for “the people” is to assure legislators conduct their business in a transparent manner.
Sadly, public officials often behave as if subjecting their decisions to public oversight is an annoyance. A good example is the way legislators routinely rush through important bills at the last moments of the session, where there are no hearings, debate or public input. Senators and assembly members then vote on these bills which they haven’t read, but which have been hammered out between lobbyists and legislative leaders in closed-door sessions.
It needn’t be this way, even if legislative leaders insist that these “urgent” measures are too important for hearings and public oversight. The long-sought fix has been to require legislators to adopt a 72-hour rule that forces them to publicly reveal the content of a bill three calendar days before there’s a final vote on it, thus giving the public a chance to weigh in. This simple proposal – which includes a process for handling truly urgent matters – is “dead on arrival” every year, yet appears to be getting new life.
Former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, and financier Charles Munger Jr. filed with the attorney general’s office this week the “California Legislature Transparency Act.” In addition to the 72-hour requirement, the proposed 2016 measure requires all proceedings be televised and made available within 24 hours of the event. Many but not all hearings currently are captured on video. By the way, Munger’s fortune assures the measure has a good shot at making the ballot.
The initiative adds this kicker: The public and media are allowed to “freely record legislative proceedings and to broadcast, post or otherwise transmit those recordings.” That includes for political advertisements, which is the kind of speech the First Amendment was designed to protect. This will drive the status quo bonkers.
The measure would “give powerful special interests like the oil industry, tobacco industry and other high-powered lobbyists a new ability to rip apart compromises delicately negotiated by lawmakers,” said Steven Maviglio, a former Capitol spokesman and Democratic strategist.
He points to important laws that were crafted at the last minute and “were approved before these lobbyists could swarm lawmakers and pressure them (with) multimillion-dollar advertising blitzes.”
But the measure’s supporters say the most influential special interests, including powerful public-sector unions, are adept at manipulating the current, secretive process.
“The bills developed in smoke-filled rooms usually are bills requested by special interests,” said Phil Ung, with the reform-oriented California Forward, which had backed a 72-hour notice requirement that was part of a failed reform initiative in 2012. “If it’s truly a tough bill, shouldn’t the Legislature be taking the time to debate it?”
The idea that major legislation couldn’t pass if it weren’t crammed through without proper oversight and vetting “flies in the face of the reality of what happens in the Capitol,” said Blakeslee. “It’s in the dark that lobbyists swarm and cut deals that would never pass muster in the light of day.” He sees this as “the most important government reform we can implement if we want to reduce the power of special interests.”
Many people still talk about the short-lived – and highly controversial – plan to chop California into six states to promote a more accountable government. That idea’s backer, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tim Draper, then created a “Fix California Challenge” to find innovative reform ideas to fund. He just announced two winners, one of which is this transparency initiative.
This isn’t as noteworthy as breaking up the state, perhaps, but the idea is significant and realistic. After all, there’s nothing public officials will like less than having millions of ordinary citizens – and not just a handful of influential lobbyists – paying careful attention to the laws they are writing. And there’s nothing the rest of us should like more.
Greenhut is the San Diego Union-Tribune’s California columnist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org