The California state Legislature is about as popular as anchovies and airport pat-downs. While the Assembly does important work, many decisions done during the last days of the session give people reason to question its performance.
Facing an Aug. 31 legislative deadline, majority Democrats manipulated their power to water down or block important reforms. The majority party introduced several last-minute “gut-and-amend” bills, where they took minor policy bills and replaced their contents with major policy changes.
They also added dubious last-minute amendments to existing bills. One would have raised taxes to pay for additional financial aid for students but the majority party added a last-minute amendment that would allow millionaires to qualify for that aid. Thankfully, that bill ultimately failed.
Other bills were amended on-the-fly by the majority, giving Republican lawmakers and staff a very short amount of time to review the hundreds of pages of legal text and analyses. Only the authors knew the true contents of many of these last-minute bills. Worst of all, there was no time for the residents of California to weigh in on important topics. Such a process undermines transparency in government.
To present more openness in the legislative process, Republicans proposed reforms. These include requiring a specified time for public review of legislation and requiring sessions to be conducted between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. to discourage midnight deals. The reforms went nowhere.
But what should get Californians really upset is how the majority party handled two important bills during the last days of session: protecting students from classroom predators and pension reform.
I voted for a bipartisan proposal that would protect students from classroom predators, a measure inspired in part by the actions of a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. Police arrested this teacher earlier this year on 23 counts of lewd acts on children aged 6 to 10. The L.A. Unified School District wanted to fire this teacher, but because of restrictive rules imposed by the local teacher’s union, he was able to resign and receive a pension and benefits. Even worse, the district had to pay him $40,000 of your tax money so he would not sue them!
Our bipartisan proposal would have expedited the process of firing teachers, but only in cases involving sex abuse, drugs or violence against children. Apparently this was a bridge too far for some union-backed lawmakers. The majority party leadership used parliamentary tactics to defeat the bill, even after CNN aired a revealing broadcast showing Democrats who voted against an earlier version of the bill refusing to say why they voted the way they did.
The majority party also engaged in last-minute shenanigans regarding pension reform. Given the nearly $500 billion unfunded pension liability facing our state, I supported strong reform. In fact, I co-authored Gov. Jerry Brown’s original reform proposal and introduced it on his behalf. But the Legislature sat on the governor’s proposal for months, only to introduce a significantly watered-down bill in the last week. The details of this proposal were not available to the public or even to most lawmakers until an hour before a late-night hearing.
The governor signed this diluted measure claiming victory, but there is a lot not to like. For example, the bill requires all new pension plans passed by local governments to be approved by the Legislature, undermining local control and discouraging the passage of more substantive reform. In addition, the Legislature can reverse the weak reforms next year on a simple majority vote.
Passing real pension reform, protecting our kids and conducting business in the light of day are not too much to ask. The only difference between the old-school, smoke-filled back rooms and today is that the smoke is missing. Californians expect and deserve better.