State Assembly defies new transparency law

Photo courtesy Franco Folini, flickr

Photo courtesy Franco Folini, flickr

SACRAMENTO – California voters in November overwhelmingly passed Proposition 54, a constitutional amendment to promote transparency by requiring all bills in their “final form” to be published online for 72 hours before legislators vote on them. It’s designed to stop last-minute gut-and-amend bills where the leadership pushes through substantive measures that haven’t been vetted – or even read by most members who vote on them.

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It’s no secret that many legislative leaders dislike the proposal. For years, reform-minded lawmakers have proposed similar measures – but they never made it before the voters. Opponents of the rule say they are all for transparency, but that requiring such a long period of time for the public and critics to review all bills makes it difficult to get complicated and important measures put together as the legislative deadline approaches.

One would think that Prop. 54’s passage would have settled the argument, but a fracas last week in the Assembly suggests that core debates over the measure are far from settled and might soon find themselves hammered out in court.

The Legislature adjourned Friday following the deadline for bills to pass out of their house of origin. Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, assured that bills coming from the Senate waited 72 hours before a final vote. But Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, is accused by Proposition 54’s backers of allowing more than 90 bills to be voted on without having been published for a full 72 hours before the vote.

There’s a question over terminology in the proposition’s language: “No bill may be passed or ultimately become a statute unless the bill with any amendments has been printed, distributed to the members, and published on the internet, in its final form, for at least 72 hours before the vote, except that this notice period may be waived if the governor has submitted to the Legislature a written statement that dispensing with this notice period for that bill is necessary to address a state of emergency … .” The issue involves the term “final form.”

The initiative’s proponents say final form means the final form before a vote in each house of the Legislature. But the Assembly argues that final form “does not pertain to a vote to move a bill to the opposite house and instead applies to legislation presented on the floor of the second house,” according to a Sacramento Bee explanation.

The chief clerk of the Assembly issued a statement explaining that “Assembly bills will not be in final form until they are presented on the floor of the Senate.” Proponents of Prop. 54, including former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, and moderate Republican financier Charles Munger Jr., strongly disagree with that interpretation and say they might go to court to defend what they say is the clear intent of the initiative.

One element of Prop. 54 that’s not in contention: The section finding that bills in violation of the 72-hour waiting period could be invalidated by the courts. That’s where the latest fracas resembles a game of chicken. De Leon clearly wasn’t taking any chances with his house’s interpretation of the proposition’s meaning. Rendon could have, say, passed a minor bill on a shorter notice as a test case to see how the courts would rule. Instead, if it’s true that he didn’t wait the full 72 hours for the votes, he may have put dozens of bills in jeopardy if the courts side with initiative drafters.

Supporters of the rule applying to both houses argue that it would be incomprehensible to give members of one legislative body (and their constituents) 72 hours to review a bill and deprive the same thing of members of the other legislative body.

Critics of the “both houses” interpretation suggest that Prop. 54’s drafters could simply have included the language “in each house” following the words “final form.” But the initiative’s drafters believe the plain reading of the initiative means that every bill must be in print 72 hours before each vote. Including the “in each house” language could have been interpreted to mean 72 hours in each house (for a possible total of six days), something proponents clearly didn’t intend.

It’s increasingly likely this dispute ends up at the state Supreme Court, with the stakes higher than ever. It will pit the intent of an initiative that passed by a nearly two-to-one margin and in all of California’s 58 counties against more than 90 recently passed bills, which could possibly be tossed aside even if the governor signs them.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at

This piece was originally published by


  1. To the gang who couldn’t shoot straight in Sacramento it makes little difference what the voters want. If what the voter wants doesn’t jibe with what they want, then voter be damned. Since the Democrats have regained a super majority in the Legislature you have witnessed our government transforming from an representative form of government to a dictatorship. Fish in a barrel are at the mercy of who is shooting at them. Welcome to the barrel.

    • showandtell says

      Sometimes the devil is in the fine print with these propositions or they are good intentions with bad results so voters have to be careful what they are voting for. For instance I think the backers of Prop 54 brought us the “top two” primary and redrawn legislative districts, the results of which I think most of us can agree have definitely NOT been good for California.

      But the good news nugget to take from this story is that, on its face at least, Prop 54 screamed for legislative plain-talk and openness, thus we know what the voters wanted in passing it, and they passed it overwhelmingly, in spite of their understandable cynicism from years of abuse.

      That tells me we still have a sensible super-majority of voters in this state… good news even though the legislature is once again governing against the will of the people as we have repeatedly observed.

  2. Julie Meier Wright says

    Steve – the list of the bills should be publicized along with an analysis of those that were gutted and amended, if any. The Governor could be a real hero if he sided with the writers of the initiative and vetoed every bill that violated the 72-hour rule. Remember, author’s intent is often sought when a LEGISLATOR is the author. Why should it be any different to consult the author of a very popular ballot initiative designed to hold our electeds accountable? The deliberate acts by Rendon to “interpret” the initiative in a way that allowed him to push 90 bills through is reprehensible. As you say in your article: “Supporters of the rule applying to both houses argue that it would be incomprehensible to give members of one legislative body (and their constituents) 72 hours to review a bill and deprive the same thing of members of the other legislative body.”

  3. It all comes down to who runs the government, the people (Voters) or the politicians. Since the voters passed 54 then the politicians need to bend to the voters.

  4. Gotta Gedada Displace says

    What TEETH does 54 contain for VIOLATION ? If not, are recall / discipline and lawsuits to void the legislation passed in violation of 54 the only recourse ??? How can 6 DAYS be a long period of time in Sacramento when the public has to wait YEARS for things to get accomplished there ?

  5. Victoria Smith says

    Of course, they are fighting this tooth and nail; trying to massage the language, so they can continue to do things w/o the oversight of the people paying for their nonsense. It is the caste system as the other article pointed out.

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