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COURSEY: Shedding three days of light on legislation

Published: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 12:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 1:28 p.m.

It's not always easy to keep up with what's going on in California government, but your state senator is trying to change that.

What – you didn't know that Lois Wolk, a Democrat from Davis, represents a good chunk of southern and eastern Sonoma County in the state Senate? Well, thanks to redistricting, she does. And if you live in or near Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma or Sonoma you had the chance to vote for her in November (although, since she was unopposed, her campaign didn't make much noise).

But the name of your state senator isn't the hardest thing to keep up with in Sacramento, and it certainly isn't what Wolk wants to change.

She has proposed a bill in the Senate that would require all legislation to be in print and available online for public review for at least 72 hours before it comes to a vote in the Legislature. An identical bill has been proposed in the Assembly by Republican Kristin Olsen of Modesto.

That's right; this is a bipartisan issue. That's good, right?

Well, we'll see. Both bills, SCA10 and ACA4, are constitutional amendments that need the support of two-thirds of the Legislature to be put on a statewide ballot, where they need the support of a majority of voters.

Democrats now hold super-majorities – more than two-thirds – of both the Senate and Assembly. And the three-day requirement may not fit with their strategy. When Republicans in recent years have proposed similar rules to increase transparency in legislation, Democrats have shot them down.

But local governments such as city councils and school boards are required by the Brown Act to publish legislative changes for public review prior to taking action. Why wouldn't that also be good for state government?

Well, sometimes transparency can get in the way of hardball politics. Or at least that's the take of Steve Maviglio, a Democratic consultant whom the Associated Press called an outspoken opponent of the change. He told the AP that if the three-day requirement had been in place, it might have undermined last year's deal on pension reforms brokered by Gov. Jerry Brown and members of the Legislature.

According to the AP story, Maviglio maintained that the pension deal nearly unraveled under intense lobbying by public sector unions and likely would have died if opponents had more time to react to the wheeling and dealing that was taking place behind closed doors in the Capitol.

"The bottom line here is that lawmaking is not a pretty process," Maviglio said.

That's true, but in a democracy it is supposed to include the public.

“When bills are introduced at the last minute and voted on minutes or hours later, that's just bad public policy,” Assemblywoman Olsen told the AP.

But that's the way some of the biggest legislation – particularly the kind that affects big political players with deep political pockets – gets done. Besides the pension deal, that has included a bill that provided an accelerated review process for large construction projects, such as a proposed NFL stadium in downtown Los Angeles, and another that delayed collection of sales taxes from online retailers, such as Amazon.

“Some things slip through the cracks, mistakes are made, too many laws lead to unexpected consequences,” Wolk told AP.

If it were up to the voters, the three-day requirement likely would pass easily, political observers say. Even Maviglio acknowledged that it would be popular with the electorate "because on the surface it seems like a good thing."

But some members of the Legislature apparently see the world differently than you and I.

Which seems like a very good argument for letting us take a look at legislation before they make it the law.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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