Old customs die easy: Century-old Capitol rule changed in a twinkling

It was around for nearly a century in the Capitol, the rule requiring new legislation to wait on hold for 30 days before being amended. Generations of California lawmakers and their staffs believed the monthlong hiatus was needed to gain time to get the legislation into print and to allow public investigation and comment.

But on Feb. 21, the 30-day rule passed into history – on the Assembly side.

The Assembly Rules Committee announced the death of the 30-day print rule, which "is a holdover to provisions dating to 1911, when the Legislature was required to recess for 30 days to allow the state printer time to publish bills." The 30-day recess was abolished 50 years ago, but the holding period for the bills remained in effect – until two weeks ago. The change only applies in the Assembly.

"It will allow people to have more time to look at bills," said Jon Waldie, the executive officer of the Assembly Rules Committee. "The practical effect of this is that the real version of the bill is in print for all to see, by the whole Rules Committee and the House itself." The rule change was prompted in part by discussions that ranking Assembly speaker staffer Rick Simpson and others had on an unrelated issue. Simpson suggested that the rule change could benefit the House's operation and ran the idea past the Legislative Counsel – which gave it a constitutional thumbs-up.

The new policy allows the carrier of a bill to make changes in his or her own legislation within the 30-day period by making what are called "author's amendments." Committee hearings and votes on the bill would not be allowed until after 30 days, but the author-approved changes could be made instantly.

That appears straightforward, but as in any Capitol change involving the Legislature's arcane rules, confusion and discussion arose. First, there were worries that the change violates a joint rule, which means the Joint Rules Committee, representing both houses, will need to take action. Not so, Assembly officials were advised by the Legislative Counsel. Second, the author's amendments would not be visible to the public until after a committee adopts them after the 30-day period, although authors could send the language to whomever they please or post the proposed language.

The Senate, meanwhile, considered the change and decided to give it a pass. "There are no plans to change policy. This is the way it has been for years, and it works perfectly. We encourage our members to have thought through all aspects of the bill before it is introduced," said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland. Several Senate Republicans agreed, calling the change unnecessary.

Assembly Republicans declined to discuss the issue. Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, and his spokesman were not available to comment, nor were a half-dozen other GOP lawmakers called by Capitol Weekly.

In the Capitol, conspiracy theories – and often, they aren't just theories – are a part of life, and the change in the 30-day print rule caused an immediate buzz. Who benefits? The quick answer is the majority Democrats who control both houses.

The 11-member, Democrat-controlled Rules Committee, which includes Republicans, adopted the change without demur, Waldie said, but staffers on both sides of the aisle in both houses were suspicious.

"Let's say you're an ambitious legislator and you want to swipe somebody's idea. As soon as they introduce a bill, you can amend yours right way and claim it as your own," one staffer said. "Or maybe you want to hide the true intentions of the bill, and you amend it on the 29th day. Or maybe you have an Assembly member running against a Senate member, and the Assembly member can introduce legislation, then amend it instantly as a campaign tactic. Whenever there is a rule change around here, I can make a case that it is good, and I can make a case that it is bad."

Waldie said the rule change is exactly what it looks like – an attempt to get greater public attention on bills. And under the old way, that goal was thwarted, the committee said. "The practical effect has been that many bills are introduced with only intent language and then sit for 30 days, thereby reducing public access to the final bill language. The policy of allowing an author's amendments to be adopted during this waiting period is in keeping with the constitutional intent of providing ample time for the public to study proposed legislation prior to its first public hearing."

Simpson, who took a lead role in the rule shift, agreed.

"The advantage is twofold," Simpson said. "First, it gives the public better notice of the bill that is going to be heard by the committee. They won't have to wait an extra week or two."

"Second, particularly in this year, we have a relatively short time for getting our bills heard. It will expedite the business of the house."

In the end, no one group is getting any leverage because of the new policy.

"It's not advantaging anybody other than the public, which will have more time to look at legislation," Waldie said.

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