Last week, hundreds of bills died a quiet death. The scene of the crime was not the Bates Motel, but rather 2 committee rooms at the State Capitol. And the murder weapon wasn’t a candlestick or other choices from the game of Clue. In fact, the bills were killed without even having a vote taken.
What am I talking about? It’s called the “suspense file.” Put simply, the Appropriations Committee reviews all bills for their fiscal impact on the state. Bills that have a fiscal impact on more than $250,000 are all placed on one list – and the Assembly leadership and Appropriations Committee chair reviews all the different spending proposals together.
Many of you who aren’t regular Capitol observers probably have no idea why the suspense file is so important, but it’s a big deal in the Capitol community.
When I worked at the Capitol, work literally ground to a halt for the hour or so while the chair of the Appropriations Committee read off the fate of hundreds of bills. I remember having only 1 bill that I staffed get off the suspense file. It was so unexpected that I was literally hi-fived my boss and everyone else around my office when the bill passed.
As reported by Calmatters, a whopping 721 bills were considered by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday, and another 355 were dealt with by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Typically, half of more of these bills are shelved due to their big price tags. Others are moved forward, but with amendments significantly reducing their costs.
Thursday’s hearings showed a bit of a change, the result of a large liberal legislative supermajority and a $21.5 billion surplus. Assembly Appropriations Chairwoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, tweeted after the hearing that 472 bills were passed out of committee, totaling $12 billion in new spending. At the start of the day, the 721 proposals in the Assembly committee represented $38.7 billion in new spending.
In years past, this never would have been the case.
During 2008’s budget crisis, the Associated Press reported that the Senate and Assembly Appropriations Committees approved “more than 360 bills (during their May mega-hearings) but they shelved another 201 measures . . . Lawmakers cited budget problems as the reason.”
In 2009, the Sacramento Bee reported that “a torrent of legislation with a cumulative price tag of nearly $213.5 billion annually was reduced to a veritable trickle that would cost the state’s general fund about $9.3 million annually . . .” The Bee noted that during the decade of the 2000’s, “the Assembly Appropriations Committee has approved an average of $644 million each year in legislation affecting the General Fund.”
Not surprisingly, the Appropriations Committee is where Republican bills go to die a painful death, even those proposals that have bipartisan support as evidenced by their being approved by the policy committee. By my count, just 28 of the 472 bills that passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee were Republican-authored bills. That’s just 5.9 percent. Republicans fared better in Senate Appropriations, winning passage of 27 bills, or 7.6 percent. Back when I worked at the Capitol, typically around 9 to 10 percent of the bills that cleared Appropriations were Republican bills – not great, but certainly better than what happened this week.
Thursday’s actions are really a big test for Gov. Gavin Newsom. As I’ve written before about his budget philosophy, he’s trying have his cake and eat it too. He wants to spend some new money on liberal priorities, while also adhering the relatively conservative budget philosophy professed by his predecessor, Jerry Brown. Lawmakers are willing to test just how strong the new Governor’s fiscal resolve really is. Their push for $12 billion in new spending proposals shows they believe Newsom won’t be nearly the fiscal watchdog that Jerry Brown was over the past 8 years.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s communications director.