There is nothing more ugly and less transparent than the final days of session of the California State Legislature. If I were escorting unsuspecting people into the State Capitol, my admonition to them would the same as the one given by Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars movie upon arriving the Mos Eisley Space Port: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
The politics of the State Capitol is terrible most of the year, after all between the vice-like grip that the state’s public employee unions have on the majority party, and the rent-seekers and crony capitalists nipping at the heels of the minority party, it’s not a particularly enjoyable place for constitutional conservatives who believe in quaint ideas like natural law, limited government, and freedom for the individual. The current makeup of the legislature requires those with sanity to watch, close up, as the majority party literally does the opposite, public policy wise, than what is needed for our state. When it is so clear that we need to repeal laws, and undo regulations, to stimulate the economy, the Democrats just pile on even more onerous laws, and more expensive regulations. It’s almost as if they live in an alternate reality. And to the sober Republican, who understands the nature of the liberals in control of the Capitol, responsible representation of their constituents is more about manning the wall than anything else — stopping bad, bad things from happening as best they can. And, for the most part, they do just that. Republicans do a good job of standing up against the Democrats. This is especially the case with voters having deprived us of the tortorous budget kabuki dance where instead of horrible budgets (like we get now), we used to have slightly-less-than-horrible budgets that were necessarily bipartisan.
But in the final days of session, while most GOP legislators continue to be stalwart in their commitment to freedom and free markets, there always is a small group of Republicans who see the end of session as a time to cut deals, feel important and relevant, and invariably play a role in carefully orchestrated, complex legislative maneuvers that almost invariably lead to the taxpayers taking it in the shorts. Every year we get a crop of legislators who think they are the smart ones, who know exactly how to legislate from the minority, carefully trading their leverage to block a two-thirds vote to put out a tax or fee increase in exchange for whatever pieces of silver they think makes for a good deal. Suddenly all of the talk about the need for transparency, the criticisms of the “gut and amend” process and the stated goal of bills being in print for for days before a vote — are conveniently jettisoned in favor of trying to cut the elusive “deal” that will show the world who is really in charge.
Of course for all of the lobbyists and public affairs consultants in Sacramento (who number in the thousands), this final week of session is like going to Disneyland. While a small group of those just trying to protect the liberty and property of their clients huddles in a broom closet, praying for sine die, all of the others are out like vultures, trying to broker that last minute deal to see if they can use the power of government to advantage their clients interests, or to screw those in competition with their client. These days it seems like the deals get worked out amongst the “third house” with the legislators themselves, especially the malliable Republicans (the ones who are a self-righteous mission to “make a difference” — or are looking for that post-legislative lucrative appointment to a board or commission) being “worked over” as part of an implementation plan.
Here is an admittedly idealistic vision for the next four days, but ever the optimist, I throw it out there for sane Republicans to consider. Stop the madness. Stop the game-playing. Stop the deal-cutting behind closed doors. Make it clear, as Republicans, that any legislation (no matter how meritorious or not) that is achieved through a “gut and amend” process that makes a mockery of transparency and due process, will be opposed by Republicans as a matter of policy. Make it clear, as Republicans, that any legislation where the final version is not in print for 72 hours and available to the public, will be opposed as a matter of policy. (These “process concerns” must apply to all legislation, good or bad). Make it clear, as Republicans, that any bill that increases state government revenues through either tax and fee increases, will be opposed as a matter of policy. That any fig-leaf so-called reforms that could be passed but would be part of some bigger “brokered deal” (taxpayers lose), will be opposed as a matter of political sophistication.
All of the temptations are out there, to include:
- Who will be the White Knight who rides to the aide of timber companies being screwed by liberal policies, who are being told that the price of their relief is for Republicans to sign off on a retail tax on all lumber sold in the state?
- Who will be the King of Good Government by extending the expiration date for car taxes out until my four year old son is in college?
- Who will be the Sultan of Sanity who decides that ending the net operating loss carry-back is worth trading for some other plum?
- And the grand-daddy of them all, who will show they are smarter than the average bear by hitting businesses with a billion dollar tax increase (maybe slightly less if big tobacco is successful at carving themselves a sweetheart exemption from the tax hike) in return for showering these ill-gotten gains on college students, and the various U.C., C.S.U. and C.C.C. Systems (and a ton of money for K-12 funding under Prop. 98)?
Look, we all know that for Republicans, the final week of session is a terrible time, as literally hundreds of bad bills are finally “birthed” by the legislature and sent on to the Governor (ranging from licensing criminal aliens to drive to the banning of “hounding”). But at least these bills went through a normal process, with policy hearings in each house. Legislators, their staff, and the public have had a chance to vet them. And while not every bill that abuses transparency can be stopped — if they are a tax increase or contain an “urgency clause” they certainly can be killed by a unified GOP.
When this legislature adjourns in a just a few days, there is an opportunity for Republicans to head into the approaching elections unified for victories at the ballot box. There are three massive tax increases to stop, and the Stop Special Interest Money Now measure, the passing of which is a top priority. Legislators unified around transparency, and having held the line on taxes, are “on message” for the Fall Campaign. Look back to 2009 for an alternative post-session world, filled with intra-party fratricide, condemnations, nasty press, and potential recalls.
I will leave GOP legislators with another quote from Obi-wan Kenobi, “This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the Dark Side of the Force.”
* Note – the original version of this column incorrectly named faux pension reform as an example of legislation that went through the normal legislative process. This was fixed because, of course, it is actually an example of last-minute policy being done behind closed doors.