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Assemblyman Donald P. Wagner

Abuse of Process – Sometimes Even the Press Fights Back

In conversations with local voters over the last few weeks, I’ve discussed several abusive practices the Democrats used recently to ram bad policy ideas through the legislature. These practices draw virtually uniform condemnation, regardless of whether the voters are registered as Republicans or Democrats. That’s no surprise. They threaten representative democracy, something every citizen of any party has an interest in, and are so manifestly unfair that they cannot be defended even along party lines.

What is a surprise, however, is that these abuses are so bad that even the usual Democratic cheerleaders in the mainstream press are beginning to complain.

One of these abuses practices – cooking the books to hide the amount of public money spent by the Legislature – exploded in the press when Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Portantino complained that his own party’s leadership cut his office budget in retaliation for his vote against the state budget. The mainstream press, represented by the Los Angeles Times and a few other papers, actually filed suit against the Democrat controlled Legislature to get timely, honest accountings.

The Republicans have no control over the Legislature’s budget and nothing to hide. Many of us released our office budgets to prove the point. For example, I posted mine on the home page of my website. But the Democratic leadership fought the lawsuit, opposed disclosure, stalled, and then released incomplete or misleading figures. The press did not fall for it. The public should be outraged. It’s your money; the Legislature should have no problem showing how much is spent and by whom.

Also recently drawing press ire is another abusive process, this one a practice called “gut and amend.” Here, a bill that otherwise languished in the Legislature or has already died is stripped of its old language, i.e., gutted, and new language is amended into it. A Sacramento Bee article, of all things, objected to Democratic State Senator Loni Hancock using gut and amend to pass a dubious bill undermining the public’s ability to pose initiatives and reneging on a bipartisan budget deal from last year.

The problem with gut and amend bills is that they always appear in the last few days of the legislative session so that the new language amended into the old bill does not go through the normal legislative process. The language is not reviewed, proponents and opponents have no time to analyze the bill, committee hearings are not held, the public has no input. The whole thing, from drafting to debate to passage, happens often literally in the dead of night and always without the time or opportunity to read the bill, much less to really consider the idea and its ramifications. The gut and amend process is simply a heavy handed way to rush a bad but politically attractive idea (at least politically attractive to the Democrats) through the Legislature without pesky public input or having to answer uncomfortable Republican questions.

As mentioned, this is so bad that even the Sacramento Bee has now taken notice and condemned the practice.

The budget deal rushed through the Legislature by the Democrats in June is yet another example of the abject failure of the majority party to respect the process and rules that they, themselves, have set up. Considering and passing the budget is perhaps the most important thing we do every year in the Legislature. One would expect the Budget Committee, charged with the responsibility of debating that budget, hearing from the experts, taking testimony from the public, and deliberating the policy choices made in the budget, to actually do those things. But, of course, it didn’t.

In this space previously I noted how the Democratic leadership of the Budget Committee, after allowing debate for all of 45 minutes, stopped the GOP from asking further questions in order to vote right away because Democrats had to catch planes out of town. This was after the specific budget language was written behind closed doors without any Republican input. Moreover, this was the budget the governor ultimately vetoed. There was no Budget Committee hearing for the state budget the governor eventually signed.

Finally, there is an irony worth noting in the Democrats so blatantly abusing the established legislative processes. These are their own rules! By simple majority vote of the Legislature on the first day of the session, the rules they will later violate are adopted. Moreover, those rules are grossly skewed in favor of the ruling party, and for that reason every Republican in the Legislature voted against them. But even with total control, the rules still prove too difficult for the Democrats to follow, and, with just another majority vote, Democrats can and do ignore them, and ignore the public, at will.

These abuses of process are no way to run a government. Fairness, the rule of law, respect for process, those things all matter in a functioning democracy. To ignore them is to abuse the public trust.

That is not good. At least the press and public are beginning to notice.

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