Lawmakers on Monday voted on what’s now commonly referred to as a “Budget Bill Jr.”
Since the passage of Prop. 25, which enacted a majority vote budget and docked lawmaker pay if budgets were adopted past June 15, lawmakers have routinely passed on-time budgets to keep getting paid, regardless of whether it was a done deal. Budget Bill Jr’s are used to incorporate changes agreed to with the Governor to facilitate signing of the entire budget package before June 30.
But with less than 48 hours before the new fiscal year begins, the Sacramento Bee reports that “Newsom and lawmakers have not yet announced a final deal on the state budget, but legislative leaders released a summary document Friday that says they’ve reached agreement on most areas, including on expanding coverage to more undocumented immigrants.”
Senate Budget Committee Vice Chair Jim Nielsen, R-Red Bluff, told the Bee that, “what we’re voting on is not really the budget, it’s a budget in process.”
CalMatters reports that outstanding budget disagreements include “how to spend billions of dollars to address the threats posed by wildfires and drought,” high-speed rail funding (Newsom wants to spend the $4.2 billion in leftover bond funds to complete the initial Central Valley segment, lawmakers aren’t so sure), and health care for illegal immigrants (Newsom wants to expand coverage to those over 60, lawmakers are pushing for 50 and up.)
Monday’s budget vote is the cherry on top of what has perhaps been the least transparent budget process since voters approved changes to the budget process over the past decade.
For starters, legislative leaders didn’t even bother to utilize a budget conference committee this year. Typically – and as was virtually always the case before the Covid-19 pandemic – a budget conference committee would be appointed to hash out the differences between the Assembly and Senate versions of the budget and work toward a final budget bill to vote on.
This year, Senate and Assembly Democrats just agreed amongst themselves behind closed doors on their version of the budget, which was then rubber stamped by each house’s budget committee before floor votes.
Why does this matter? While closed door discussions are always part of closing a budget deal, budget conference committees hold numerous public hearings discussing outstanding items holding up a final budget deal. The public, news media, and advocates knew what was being debated on budget issues that concerned them – and could make their voices heard.
In contrast, this year’s process literally left the public in the dark until final agreements were announced by the legislature’s Democratic leaders.
The budget bills voted on this week also make a mockery of California’s legislative sunshine law, Proposition 54 (2016).
The measure requires that the final text of any legislation must be “in print” – or available for the public to review – for at least 72 hours before the Legislature may vote.
Late on Friday, the various budget related bills scheduled for consideration on Monday were put into print. Consider this was the legislative equivalent of the late Friday “breaking news” dump.
Yes, the bills had their required 72 hours of public review before being voted upon. But releasing the language late on Friday just as Californians were heading into a sunny weekend ensured that the bills didn’t receive the public attention or news media scrutiny that they would have otherwise received by releasing the bill language in the middle of the week (kudos to the Sacramento press corps members who nonetheless worked overtime and published stories on the budget bills over the weekend).
Californians deserve better than closed door budget deal-making and last-minute document dumps, especially as the budget bills lawmakers vote on this week will have such a significant impact on the state’s fiscal direction next year, and for years to come.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.