Photo via Pixabay
Photo via Pixabay

Passage of Proposition 54 on Tuesday’s ballot would prohibit the Legislature from passing any bill unless it has been in print and published on the Internet for at least 72 hours before the vote, except in cases of public emergency.

Approval of what backers have dubbed the California Legislature Transparency Act would also require the Legislature to make audiovisual recordings of all its proceedings, except closed session proceedings, and post them on the internet within 24 hours and require them to remain online for at least 20 years.

Passage of the initiative would also authorize any person to make a video or audio recording of legislative proceedings, except closed session proceedings, and allow recordings of legislative proceedings to be used for any legitimate purpose, without payment of any fee to the state.

Approval of Proposition 54 would result in increased costs to state government of potentially $1 million to $2 million initially and about $1 million annually for making additional legislative proceedings available in audiovisual form on the internet, according to an analysis conducted by the Legislative Analyst’s Office and Department of Finance.

Backers say the costs associated with Proposition 54 would account for less than 1 percent of the Legislature’s approximately $298 million annual budget.

Proponent Charles Munger Jr. told City News Service voters should approve Proposition 54 because “a bill that every citizen and every legislator has had 72 hours to read and to think about and to decide whether to oppose it, offer an amendment or support it, that will be a better bill than one that they haven’t had that 72 hours.”

Passage of Proposition 54 would also make the final days of a legislative session, when some bills are totally changed without committee hearings, “much more orderly,” “make it possible for the public to be engaged in those last decisions” and “see better legislation as a result,” Munger said.

“If the legislators themselves don’t know what changes are going to be made in bills, it is certainly the case the public has no idea,” said Munger, an experimental physicist who was also a key supporter of ballot measures that created the top-two primary system and took legislative and congressional redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and gave it to a commission.

“If all the bills that are going to be approved in the last days of the session are all known” members of the public can give their input. “They can’t engage if the bill on dog catching which they support is suddenly going to become a bill on criminal justice.”

Opponents of Proposition 54, who include the California Democratic Party and California Labor Federation, claim passage would introduce “unnecessary new restrictions on the way laws are crafted by the Legislature” and “empowers special interests under the guise of transparency.”

“The special interests are already in the Capitol 24/7 towards the end of a session,” Munger said. “They’re never surprised. They talk to the staffers. They know what language is under consideration to be jammed into a bill.

“What Proposition 54 says is `OK, you know it, but now we will know it.’ We will know what the language of the bills are.”

Munger also criticized opponents’ definition of a special interest.

“A special interest is any person in California whom a legislator opposes,” Munger said. “If a legislator wants a bill that you, a citizen, are going to oppose, you are a special interest. He is trying to keep you from having a role in shaping his legislation. All of us are special interests in the pejorative sense as seen by the legislators in Sacramento.”

Another issue raised by opponents is the possibility of legislation involving compromises becoming derailed by the 72-hour rule.

Munger said “if you put a bill out that’s supposedly a grand compromise and everybody can see it and they don’t like it, it will probably fall apart, but then it should. On the other hand, there will be compromises forged which will only stay together precisely because people know they’d have to justify their vote to an engaged public and they don’t want to face the music of an engaged public who they are going to disappoint.”

The initiative, which is backed by the California Republican Party and California Chamber of Commerce, stemmed from proponent Sam Blakeslee’s Digital Democracy effort, his experiences as an assemblyman and state senator and the “many things that the Legislature actually does that don’t work the way you learn about in civics class,” Munger said.

“A lot of it we concluded would disappear if people had to be on the record doing it,” Munger said.

One example Munger offered was committee chairmen not sharing correspondence about a bill with the members. The threat of a video capturing a committee chairman trying to explain to a member why correspondence wasn’t shared would curtail the practice, Munger said.

Digital Democracy is a project of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, based at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It is an online database of state legislative committee hearings that can be searched by keyword, topic, speaker or date.

Blakeslee “was frustrated by the fact the Assembly and Senate only record half their meetings,” Munger said. “Often the most interesting meetings, by some eerie coincidence, were chosen by the Legislature to be the ones that were not recorded.”

Steven Maviglio of Californians for an Effective Legislature, which is conducting the campaign against Proposition 54, took issue with Munger’s claim about the amount of committee hearings being recorded, saying they all are.

Aspects of how the Legislature operates that drew Blakeslee’s ire included giving legislators as little as five minutes to decide how to vote on a bill without them having read it, Munger said.

Blakeslee believed “the citizens I represent put me here so I could actually represent them. I can’t do that on a bill I haven’t read,” Munger said.

“He didn’t like being summoned by lobbyists on each side (saying), `I know you haven’t read it, but it’s a great bill’ (or) `I know you haven’t read it, but it’s a terrible bill’ and he had to vote in the next five minutes,” Munger said. “He thought that was terrible.”

Munger has donated more than $10 million to the effort on behalf of Proposition 54 along with $750,000 to the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy.

Munger called those donations “forms of philanthropy, with the aim of giving citizens more information about and more engagement with their Legislature.”

“I get no more benefit than any other citizen gets,” Munger said. “The main difference between the two donations is that there is no tax deduction for donations to the political campaign for Proposition 54, and for the political campaign I am the one who has to work hard.”

Regarding his donation to the institute, Munger said, “We went to great lengths in Proposition 54 to give absolutely everyone identical, free and easy access to audiovisual records made by the Assembly or Senate. Anyone can go into immediate competition with the institute — which is a nonprofit — and try to do a better job of disseminating the information. I hope a lot of people do.”

Maviglio criticized Munger’s donations and his describing them as philanthropy, claiming never before in California history has one person spent so much on behalf of a ballot measure without receiving a significant amount of contributions from others.

—City News Service

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