New California legislative bills grow gnarly in the dark of night 

The Capitol — especially during the last, hectic days of any California legislative session — is a bottom-line kind of place. Its occupants, whether legislators or lobbyists, are entirely focused on passing, defeating or amending bills.

They respect those most adept at pulling legislative levers to reach their goals, and disdain those who complain about process. They practice, in other words, the adage attributed to Otto von Bismarck that “laws are like sausages; it’s better not to see them being made.”

One doesn’t have to be naive or squeamish, however, to be appalled at how the Legislature ignores its own rules and common sense as it enacts potentially far-reaching legislation in the session’s final hours, mostly to benefit those with political pull.

This time, we saw a particularly heavy load of what have been dubbed “mushroom bills” — grown in the dark in a bed of manure. Suddenly, a bill that’s languishing is pulled up, its contents are stripped, an entirely new bill is inserted and the measure is rushed through both houses.

Lobbyists scramble to figure out what’s happening and why. Reporters track down rumors as legislative committees stage quickie meetings to stuff political sausage into legislative casings.

Not surprisingly, many last-minute bills are drafted to repair errors or changes of political mind in previous measures that themselves were written and passed in haste, particularly those attached to the state budget.

The budget was ginned up in June after Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to raise taxes were blocked. It contains multiple gimmicks to balance income and outgo on paper, such as grabbing money from local redevelopment agencies and passing “triggers” that will, at least theoretically, cut spending automatically as the budget’s optimistic revenue estimates fall short.

The Legislature has been busily modifying the trigger process, backing away from taxing Internet sales and enacting “carve-outs” that soften the redevelopment impact on some communities, causing Republican Sen. Bob Huff to complain about “dark-of-night fixes.”

Many of the mushroom bills benefit labor unions, the Democrats’ chief source of campaign support, and could have been drafted earlier in the year and gone through the normal process, such as one allowing unionization of child care workers and another to force local governments to sign project labor agreements on public works projects.

However, they were left until the last week, clearly to minimize public exposure and adverse reaction.

It’s a lousy way to make public policy and we are all losers because of it.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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