Lobbyist’s Notebook: Reforming legislative procedures

The state Capitol in Sacramento. (Photo: Adonis Villanueva)

Capitol observers often complain about certain procedural aspects of California lawmaking.

So I took an informal poll: I asked some of my lobbying colleagues, as well as staff in the Legislature from both houses and both political parties, for suggestions on how to make things more efficient.

By far, the most common criticisms from both lobbyists and the staff focus on the state budget and, after that, comes the operations of the committees.

We’re not talking about partisanship, the influence of campaign money, political infighting, hostile environments, sexual harassment, vendettas or other high-profile, media-worthy aspects of the Capitol world.

We’re talking about the day-to-day mechanics of lawmaking inside the Capitol.

By far, the most common criticisms from both lobbyists and the staff focus on the state budget and, after that, comes the operations of the committees.

I didn’t conduct a formal survey, but it was interesting to see how the Capitol staff and the lobbyists expressed similar concerns about the legislative process.  Based upon their suggestions and feedback, the following are some suggested improvements.

Budget and Bills
One potential reform is to require the budget conference committee to follow the general rule used by conference committees, which says a bill should not be considered as a budget trailer bill unless its subject matter has been heard and approved in the policy committee(s) with jurisdiction over the subject matter in both houses of the Legislature.

In other words, budget trailer bills should have to be heard and voted upon in policy committees, in addition to the relevant budget subcommittees.

There is a strong sentiment that there should only be one Budget Act per legislative year.

Another reform would require budget trailer bills to be adopted prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year, which means by June 30, or within 15 calendar days of passage of the main budget bill.

Others believe that budget subcommittees should be required to hear from all departments, boards and commissions under their jurisdiction, to encourage careful deliberation over spending.

Capitol observers are often surprised by how many departmental budgets are placed on “consent” on a budget subcommittee’s agenda, which means it gets lumped in with a number of other items that are all resolved with a single vote.

An additional reform would be to require a separate trailer bill for each topic, rather than allowing multiple, unrelated provisions in a single trailer bill. As such, the “germaneness rule” would be strictly enforced by each house when it comes to budget trailer bills.

There is a strong sentiment that there should only be one Budget Act per legislative year. Thereafter, any changes to that Budget Act would be considered as normal appropriations bills and be subject to a two-thirds vote requirement.

One interesting suggestion is that the governor’s proposed trailer bills be introduced by the budget committees, allowing them to be in print for the public to see and for budget and policy committees to analyze, debate and consider public testimony before votes are cast.

The second most common area of concern expressed by legislative staff and lobbyists alike is the dreaded “two-and-two rule,” which reduces the amount of substantive testimony before legislative policy committees.

Most observers suggest eliminating this rule, or at least increasing the number of persons who can testify and for how long they can do so.

The most common recommendation in my informal poll was to have a limit of three standing committees per legislator.

While witnesses should be admonished to keep their remarks brief and not to repeat testimony already provided, substantive testimony should not be limited by the policy committees, particularly those in a bill’s house of origin. Moreover, any rules on testimony should be consistent with all Assembly and Senate standing committees.

Also, there should be reasonable and uniform deadlines in both houses for submitting letters to the policy committees. Most committees’ deadlines are a week before the bill’s scheduled hearing, although some are shorter and some are longer (for example, one Senate committee requires position letters 12 days in advance of the hearing).

Another reform is to reduce the number of committees that any legislator can sit on. This has been suggested to limit the amount of overlap for legislators and so that they will hopefully remain for the duration of the committee hearings for which they are a member.

The most common recommendation in my informal poll was to have a limit of three standing committees.

Another helpful suggestion is to require all committees to post support and oppose letters online prior to a bill’s hearing.

Most staff and lobbyists suggested that so-called “intent bills” and “spot bills” should not be voted on. Instead, there must be a substantive policy change for votes to be cast on bills in committees or on the floors.

Finally, a reform would require proportionate political representation of legislators on each committee.

Fiscal Bills
One suggestion is to amend Joint Rule 10.5, which provides guidance to the Legislative Counsel’s Office to determine whether a bill is “fiscal”. The language of the current Joint Rule is specific and does not take into consideration all potential fiscal impacts of bills.

Appropriations Committees should be limited to fiscal issues and not act as a policy committee that defeats bills on a policy basis after the bills have already passed a policy committee.

In other words, the two fiscal committees should simply vote aye or no based on the bill’s fiscal impact.

A popular reform is to lower the bill limits, especially now when legislators have a possible tenure of 12 years in one house and there should be adequate time to consider priorities.

Of course, like most legislative rules, a lawmaker can petition his or her respective Rules Committee for a waiver of the bill introductions limit. The most commonly suggested bill cap was 30 bills per legislator per 2-year Session.

Floor Action
Another potential reform: No resolutions may be considered for floor debate during the final week of Session.

Any resolution to be considered must be on consent that week, so that the lawmakers’ limited time on the floors is spent processing the hundreds of bills during the last week of session, rather than debating resolutions.

Ed’s Note: Chris Micheli is a principal with the Sacramento governmental relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor at McGeorge School of Law in its Capital Lawyering Program.


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