Legislature clings to “gut and amend” powers

TransparencyEven as a measure to end the most egregious offenses waits for voters in November, even as the procedure is discouraged by leadership and even as the move is prohibited by the Legislature’s rules, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon will continue to allow bills to be gutted and amended, his staff confirmed.

Gut and amend is a catchall phrase thrown around Sacramento. In general, it means removing all or a substantial part of a bill and replacing it with new provisions that have little or nothing to do with the bill’s original intent, especially after the bill’s shell has passed through a part of the process, like a committee hearing or a vote in one chamber.

Proponents say there are instances when it’s necessary, but detractors say it leads to bad legislation and limits the power of those with an opposing view. The times that irk opponents the most are when a bill is gutted and amended sometimes just hours before a vote.

Members of Rendon’s staff said the Paramount Democrat, who has taken a more soft-handed approach to leadership than some of his predecessors, does not encourage the practice, but leaves legislators to decide how to best handle their legislation.

“There are many situations where a gut and amend may be actually be needed,” said Rendon spokesman John Casey. “Regarding the Speaker’s involvement on the issue, he does not tell members to do anything. They are the masters of their own legislation and are entitled to amend their bills in any way they see fit.”

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but the Los Angeles Democrat has not opposed gut and amends in the past.

Examples

Proponents of a bill generally care little for how it gets passed as long as it becomes, and remains, law. So the murky gut and amend process is a means to an end for advocates.

For example, last year, the Legislature officially amended a shell with 104 pages of language changes that dissolved 400 redevelopment agencies statewide, which subsidized local development, which advocates of the move said eliminated wasteful and corrupt agencies.

However, right or wrong, the gut and amend circumvented the normal vetting process, critics said.

“SB 107, redevelopment rewrite, may (or not) be a great bill but springing it on final day of session as a budget trailer bill is shabby,” Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters tweeted at the time.

A year prior, the Legislature pushed through a 112-page bill limiting school districts’ ability to fund reserves, without even a committee hearing, which Walters called one of the “most pointlessly cynical legislative act(s) of this still-young century.”

And years before that, the Legislature jammed through a bill streamlining the strict environmental review process for local development to pave way for a proposed football stadium in Los Angeles — the shell of the bill required recycling and compost bins in schools — only to have a court later rule part of the measure “unconstitutional.”

And so on.

Rules

Legislative rules in both chambers already prohibit “non-germane” amendments, meaning those amendments that have nothing or little to do with the shell. A prime example waiting in the wings is Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s bill to even out when farmworkers are given overtime pay — a measure that died earlier this year but has since been added to a bill originally focused on teachers.

However, the rules can be, and are routinely, waived. Leaders generally like having as many legislative tools as possible at their disposal, and anything that speeds up the process or lacks scrutiny limits the power of the minority to impact in the debate.

Proposition 54, which is to be decided by the voters this November, would, among other things, require the final version of a bill to be in print and made available online for 72 hours prior to a vote.

“The only way to actually fix this problem is by changing the California Constitution,” said Sam Blakeslee, a former Republican legislative leader and proponent of Prop. 54.

But do some deals need to be passed in the eleventh hour?

Prop. 54 would prevent the last-minute gut and amends, but it would also thwart other quickly-passed and negotiated bills that may not qualify as gut and amends, like the 2008 budget deal advocates say staved off bankruptcy.

Democratic political consultant Steven Maviglio argues that Prop. 54 is just another “tool” for special interests to unravel legislative deals at the last second, pointing to the 2008 budget agreement, the 1959 Fair Housing Act, the 2006 climate change bill (AB32) and the 2014 water bond — all voted on without 72 hours notice.

“Let’s not give special interests any more tools to prevent lawmakers from doing the right thing, whether it be unnecessary delays in enacting legislation or ways to demonize the Legislature,” wrote in The Sacramento Bee.

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com