Legislative Shenanigans, Last Minute Antics & SB 88

Californians are taking an increasingly dim view of the governor and members of state legislature.  Field Poll numbers show that nearly three out of four survey respondents — some 74 percent — said they do not approve of the job that members of the California Legislature are doing.  Along with a mangled and heavily politicized budget process, legislative measures like Senate Bill 88 continue to provide reasons why the California Legislature deserves to be held in such low public esteem.
 
SB 88 is one of the measures “gutted and amended” on Friday to incorporate provisions very similar to AB 155 (Mendoza), a measure that sought to require state permission prior to a local agency seeking Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.  When heard in the Senate Local Government Committee earlier this year, AB 155 failed to garner even the motion necessary to move the bill so that a committee vote could be taken.  Now authored by Senator Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), SB 88 gives new life to a misguided effort to prevent local governments from filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code.    
 
The last minute process of “gut and amends” has become an annual Legislative tradition in the final weeks of the legislative year.  “Gut and amend” is a practice used during the final days of a legislative session in which the entire contents of a bill are stripped out (“gut”) and replaced with something new (“amend”).  Opponents argue that the practice is used to slip through bills at the very end of a legislative session without public input. Although such bills are still subject to legislative committee hearings, often those hearings are held on short notice.  
 
In essence, SB 88 undermines local officials’ discretion in responding to fiscal crises by providing that a local public entity may only file for bankruptcy with the approval of the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission (CDIAC), which may impose prescriptive conditions including an express prohibition on the abrogation of union contracts, thereby significantly preempting local control and promoting efforts by unions to preserve their contracts in cities faced with stark budget decisions that affect their taxpayers.  These potentially prescriptive conditions imposed by CDIAC cannot be overridden by a local agency – therefore undermining local control. 

But power behind the bill and the real reason for its last minute re-emergence is the state labor unions.  SB 88 is so important for the public safety and labor unions throughout the state, because this bill will provide labor unions more control over municipalities finances and make permanent union contracts, should municipalities go bankrupt. This leaves public safety unions unscathed and immune to economic realities, and perpetuate unsustainable fiscal policy within each municipality.

Such state interference with local governments is unconscionable, especially for a Legislature that repeatedly has failed to balance the state budget or make necessary reforms to prevent recurring budget crises.  It is the responsibility of bankruptcy courts, not a politically motivated state commission, to judge whether a fiscally troubled municipality is able to pay its bills and if it has a viable plan for reorganizing its debt to get back into the black. 
 
The gut-and-amend nature of the bill, on a topic of such significance and sensitivity, particularly following the bruising battles of the state budget, makes SB 88 especially outrageous.  It is not only an example of why the California Legislature deserves to be held in such low public esteem, but of the power and influence public unions sway over California’s legislative process.

Perhaps the greatest irony comes when one realizes that the author of SB 88, Senator DeSaulnier, was recently appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to chair the legislative committee in charge of examining reform of the legislative process.

In a recent press release from Assembly Speaker  Karen Bass’s office outlines the Joint Select Committee’s responsibilities including making government more transparent and accessible from around the state, diminishing the influence of special interests.

UPDATE: Assemblyman Mike Duvall has resigned from the State Assembly less than 15 hours after CBS News and the Orange County Weekly broke a story of him bragging about multiple extra-marital affairs on a live microphone in the State Capitol.

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