Commentary - Secrecy abounds on state budget, major bills

By Dan Walters | 
CALmatters Columnist  |   

Fair warning: By reading this you will be plunging into the Legislature’s almost impenetrably arcane thicket of internal procedures.

To begin at the beginning, for decades the state budget was written in secret by the chairmen of the Legislature’s two fiscal committees, Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance.

This clandestine process exploded in the 1970s during a larger battle over control of the state Senate and for more than a decade the state budget was fashioned more or less in public.

Eventually, however, the big decisions again moved behind closed doors and into private negotiations among what came to be known as the “Big 5” – the governor and the partisan leaders of both houses. More recently, Republican leaders have been excluded because the vote margin for budgets dropped from two-thirds to simple majorities and the GOP now has only a quarter of the Legislature’s seats. So now a “Big 3” makes the multi-billion-dollar decisions.

When the budget was handled largely by the Legislature’s two fiscal committees, they delayed action on legislation that would add money to the current budget, placing those bills in a “suspense file” until the financial parameters of the upcoming budget were settled – which made perfect sense.

By and by, however, legislative leaders divided the process, creating “budget committees” in both houses to work on the overall spending plan and “appropriations committees” whose sole function was to handle non-budget legislation with financial impacts, however slight.

However, it quickly morphed into a new way of conducting the public’s business in private. The appropriations committees became vehicles for deciding, without leaving fingerprints, which bills would advance to legislative floors and which would be buried.

Those chairing the appropriations committees would simply read the numbers of bills to be held or released for floor votes without explanation and it’s been obvious that the secret decisions had little or nothing to do with fiscal impacts and everything to do with political considerations of some kind.
This month’s version involved 721 Assembly bills and 355 in the Senate. Overall, nearly 70 percent were given the green light and the others simply died without explanation.

Not surprisingly, bills by the dominant Democrats generally fared better than those by the powerless Republicans and those being carried by the chairs of the two appropriations committees were especially blessed.

Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat who heads the Assembly Appropriations Committee, released 15 of her own 16 bills to the floor – the most of any member, according to calculations by lobbyist Chris Micheli, who charts legislative data as a hobby.

The demise of one bill in Senate Appropriations was especially noteworthy – and inexplicable.

Its chairman, Anthony Portantino, axed Senate Bill 50, one of the year’s most important measures. It would set aside local zoning laws to allow high-density housing in “jobs-rich” and “transit-rich” communities, aimed at overcoming “not-in-my-backyard” opposition to housing projects, especially in affluent, cloistered cities.

Democrat Portantino happens to represent one of those cities, La Canada Flintridge, and to deepen the mystery, Senate President Pro Term Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, said afterward that she had nothing to do with the action and would have voted for SB 50, carried by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat.

So now we have a made-in-secret budget and secretive decisions on important legislation outside the budget, making it virtually impossible to hold anyone accountable for what does and does not happen. It’s just like the bad old days.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to

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