Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gut, amend: How too many California laws are made - Modesto Bee

There are numerous reasons to be frustrated with the way things are done in Sacramento. The Legislature approves and the governor signs budgets filled with gimmicks, one reason why the state's financial troubles have snowballed into today's mess.

Legislators will support a bill by a colleague of the same party and vote "No" on a very similar proposal from someone of the other party. We seldom see this locally, on city councils and other nonpartisan boards.

Friday is the deadline for bills to pass the Legislature this year, and we're seeing multiple examples of another deplorable practice in Sacramento â€" "gut and amend." This is where legislators delete the text of an existing bill and replace it with something entirely new and unrelated, using the same bill number.

The proposal that is erased is often unimportant and-or doesn't stand a chance of passage for any number of reasons. The new subject is often important â€" and controversial. But because the language is tossed in at the last minute, citizens don't even know about and get a chance to comment. Sometimes even the lobbyists are caught off guard â€" although they are responsible for some of the gut-and-amend bills. The amended bills are voted on in a hurry, with little or no debate and deliberation at the committee level.

Proposition 31, a budget reform initiative on the November ballot would, among other things, seek to end the gut-and-amend practice. We haven't yet taken a position on Proposition 31, a constitutional amendment that is being pushed by California Forward, a nonprofit organization. But lawmakers are giving voters good reason to support this initiative as they gut and amend their way through the final days of the 2011-2012 legislative session. A few examples:

Senate Bill 901 â€" Originally it was a proposal to reduce air pollution with a vehicle retirement program. Then it morphed into the California Opportunity and Prosperity Act. It which would create a five-year pilot program for workers who are in the United States illegally and cannot get Social Security numbers â€" but who have worked in California since 2008 and pay taxes with a federal Individual Tax Information Number, or ITIN, assigned to foreigners who work in the United States.

The aim of the bill is to allow those in a proposed 2013-18 California-only program to be exempt from "apprehension, detention or removal" by the federal government. The ideamight be well intentioned, but it would give false hope to employers and workers who are desperate for national immigration reform. This gut-and-amend bill comes after a proposed ballot initiative filed last December, also called the California Opportunity and Prosperity Act, failed to submit signatures by the July 2 deadline to get on the November ballot.

Senate Bill 1040 â€" Surfacing on Friday, this is a proposal to repeal the controversial $150 annual fire prevention fee charged on to rural homeowners in exchange for raising taxes on numerous out-of-state corporations. SB 1040 would link a GOP push to repeal the fire prevention fee repeal with a key priority of Assembly Speaker John Pérez and most Democrats, Assembly Bill 1500, to impose a corporate tax formula known as the "single sales factor." The goal is to get enough Senate Republicans â€" at least two â€" to approve the compromise to ensure that Pérez's tax formula bill clears the upper house by the needed supermajority. SB 1040 started out in February as a nonspecific bill about the budget. When amended in late June it was about pensions and funding for higher education. And now, fire fees and corporate taxes.

There always will be circumstances that warrant suspension of rules to allow for language in bills to change. But in recent years, the end-of-session crush of legislation has careened out of control.

Sadly, even some of those who claim to support of legislative reform continue to use the gut-and-amend system when it suits their purposes. Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, is a board member of California Forward. The group's initiative, Proposition 31, would require that bills remain in print for at least three days before going to a final vote.

Yet that didn't stop Guardino from joining other business leaders in pushing gut-and-amend legislation last week that would have significantly weakened the California Environmental Quality Act. Fortunately, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg shelved that one, saying CEQA was far too important to be rewritten at the last minute.

Measures dealing with solar energy, tax credits, garbage shipments and the postmark on ballots were all topics of last-minute amendments.

In a video last week, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters suggested that gut and amend needed a new label: transmogrify. The definition: to change completely, to transform, especially in a grotesque or strange manner. We agree: Many of these transformations are grotesque and offensive.

The public holds the state Legislature in very low regard. Gut-and-amend bills are just one of the reasons why.

Coming Monday: The gut and amend of an important bill on teacher evaluations.

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