By Joel Fox | The California state budget was passed and signed two months ago but the legislature is still passing trailer bills attached to the budget with small money tweaks and major policy changes. It’s doubtful when voters passed Proposition 25 in 2010 that changed the rules on how the budget is approved they intended the legislature to have such a free hand in delivering new policy.
Trailer bills usually skip the policy committees, are not subject to voter referendum, and take effect immediately after the governor approves the bill.
Such a scheme is fraught with the potential for mischief. And we’re seeing some play out.
The most recent example occurred last Thursday when the governor signed a bill passed to rewrite the rules on recalling elected officials. Despite protestations by Democrats that the bill is about protecting voters, the bill is all about protecting Sen. Josh Newman by delaying a recall that has the signatures to qualify for the ballot this fall (under the old rules).
We went down this road before with the majority Democrats passing a bill to change requirements connected to the recall—allowing time for voters to withdraw their names from petitions and requiring the Department of Finance to “study” the cost of the recall. With these procedures in place, the Newman recall vote likely would not occur until the June primary instead of a lower voter turnout election in the fall.
An appellate court threw the first attempt to stall the recall into the freezer on single subject grounds. The legislature quickly passed a substitute bill to satisfy the court before the Secretary of State certified the petition signature count establishing an early election.
The proposed rule changes contained in the trailer bills are effectively retroactive measures enacted to affect a ballot campaign that is already in progress.
Imagine your favorite baseball player hits the ball over the fence and goes into his home run trot when a league officials jumps out of the stands and stops him. The rules have changed while the ballplayer was running around the bases, the official says. Now to successfully hit a home run you have to hit the ball completely out of the stadium into the parking lot. The ball you just hit over the fence does not count. Under new rules, a home run requires more distance.
For the recall, it now takes more time. That’s pretty much the situation the recall proponents face with the Democratic majority changing the rules.
Budget trailer bills have become more of a menace as the state suffers under one-party rule. The law allows for the budget trailer bills to have some connection to the budget, can pass with a simple majority vote and can go into effect immediately.
The concern over how the trailer bills could be used in ways to erode government fairness was flagged by then-Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters even before the vote on Proposition 25: “Thus, it could be a vehicle for secretly passing special-interest favors that may have no real budgetary purpose. Conceptually, it’s a step forward. In practice, however, it could have insidious and corrosive consequences.”
Corrosive to be sure.
Walters followed up a couple of years later with examples of what he called “skullduggery” in using “so-called trailer bills.”
“One was aimed solely at making it more likely that voters would approve Gov. Jerry Brown’s sales and income tax ballot measure by jumping it over others to the top of the November ballot. Several others were giveaways to public employee unions, which are the Democrats’ chief source of funds for their own campaigns and the tax measure,” Walters wrote.
In addition to the big rule changes on the recall, trailer bills were used this year to expand the number of people prohibited from buying guns and allowing unions to make a pitch to newly hired employees. Important policy matters, but not really budget matters in a real world sense.
Maybe it’s time to define when budget trailer bills are truly related to budget matters.
[Cross-posted from Fox & Hounds.]