The ‘suspense’ is killing me

Last week, every member of the California state Senate received a letter from Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The letter explained the committee had more than 250 bills on its suspense file, and asked each member essentially to prioritize their bills currently before the Appropriations Committee. The letter also requested “amendments to reduce or eliminate costs associated with your bills.”

And so began the magical, and sometimes mysterious, process of dealing with the Appropriations Committee’s suspense files. Both the Senate and Assembly will hold hearings next week to determine the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars of legislators’ pet projects. Hundreds of bills will be heard in a matter of hours. Votes will be taken without testimony from a single witness. It is a highly-choreographed event, as much a part of the ritual of state government as the May Revise or the State of the State address.

Assembly Appropriations Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, says he will be “working through the weekend” to determine which bills will come off the suspense file in his committee. Leno will huddle with Appropriations staff, including chief consultant Geoff Long, and key members of the speaker’s staff to help coordinate next week’s hearing.

“This is my first time going through this process. I’m learning as I go,” said Leno. “But I’m working with the most experienced people in the Building.”
In years past, the speaker’s chief of staff and other key policy advisers have participated in the meeting. On the Senate side, four senators will be involved in the process: Perata, Torlakson, majority leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and caucus chairwoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco. Appropriations Committee chief consultant Bob Franzoia and Erin Niemela, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, also will be instrumental in the choreography of next week’s hearing.

We have reached the point in the political calendar when the Appropriations chairmen in both houses wield their power. With the swing of a gavel, decisions will be made this week over which bills live and which ones die. But these decisions are made with careful input from the leaders in both houses.

“I’m sure the speaker will take the opportunity to communicate with me,” Leno said.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, R-Fresno, says the suspense file is also a tool used by the majority party to remind everyone who’s in charge. “It is much more political than it is policy. For Republicans, there’s no rhyme or reason as to which bills make it to the floor and which ones don’t,” he says.
“A lot of times the suspense calendar is used as a reminder of who’s the majority and who’s not,” says Villines.

Once the decisions are made, Democrats on the Appropriations committees are expected to fall into line and defer to the decisions made by the chairman and staff. In preparation for next week’s Senate suspense-file hearing, Perata dumped two moderates from the committee: senators Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, and Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, were replaced with Democrats Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Joe Simitian, D-San Jose.

Steinberg, who is a former chairman of Assembly Appropriations, says next week’s whirlwind hearings are pivotal to the legislative process.
“It’s the funnel,” says Steinberg. “The Appropriations Committee is a great place to solve problems and amend bills in ways that bring greater consensus.” But, he says, “it’s also a place where good ideas don’t move forward because the state can’t afford” various projects.

Steinberg described his preparation for the suspense file as a “generally collaborative process.” He recalls a “Sunday night meeting in the speaker’s conference room, with seven to eight people and a lot of food.” Those people included Steinberg and Herb Wesson, who was speaker at the time.
But the suspense file is also a way for Democrats to kill bills without forcing members to put up votes on controversial bills. Bills are moved to the suspense file through an edict from the committee chairman. And many of them are never heard from again.

Next week’s hearings may not be as painful as the next time the suspense files are heard. This time around, the bills up in Senate Appropriations are Senate bills; Assembly bills are still in the Assembly committee. But next month, there will be two more suspense-file hearings, when senators will ponder the fate of Assembly bills and vice-versa. Those suspense-file hearings have a much different tone and feel.

In those future committee hearings, more feelings will be hurt, more blood will be spilled. Next month, the suspense file will become a key battleground in the annual institutional struggle between the Senate and Assembly that marks the end of every session.

Leno concedes that while his committee hopes to trim “more than $1 billion” worth of spending currently pending in his committee down to roughly “$50-100 million,” the bar for getting bills out of committee next week is not quite as high as it will be next time.

“To the extent possible, we want to give members an opportunity to get some version of their bills to the floor,” said Leno.

When asked about the blood-letting and hostage trading that can go on during a suspense file hearing, Steinberg says, “that oversimplifies it. Is there some of that in the heat of the battle? Of course.”

It’s not just the Appropriations committees that hold bills on a suspense file. The Revenue and Taxation Committees in both houses and the Senate Education Committee have their own suspense files. Senate Public Safety chairwoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, has started holding all bills that increase criminal sentences on a special file as the state deals with its prison-overcrowding crisis.

The Rev and Tax suspense file dates back to the days of David Roberti’s leadership of the Senate. Committee vice-chairman Senator Dave Cogdill says he does not have a problem with the committee having a suspense file, per se. But, he says, “I think it’s important that the vice-chair and the chair have an opportunity to review bills and come to some agreement on placing those bills on a final hearing agenda.”

Cogdill says he hopes that the committee chairwoman, Senator Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, will allow every bill on his committee’s suspense file to receive an up-or-down vote. That would be very different than the Appropriations committee, where many bills simply fade away and are never heard from again after moving to the suspense file.

“I’ve had assurances from the chair that we will have a suspense-file hearing. We certainly hope there will be one,” he said.

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