Testy About Testimony

Among the most disturbing trends in the state Legislature is the muzzling of persons who wish to testify.

There is something fundamentally undemocratic about witnesses being limited to two persons at two minutes a throw with the remaining would-be testifiers permitted merely to say their name and that they support or oppose the measure.

 Very edifying. Isn’t it safe to assume the two-minute deprived speakers support or oppose the bill if they’re standing at the rostrum with other people who like or hate the bill? 

Would that lawmakers imposed the same stringent limitations on their own floor speeches. Nearly 25 percent of the 80-member state Assembly felt compelled to jaw about the miracle or the demerits of last year’s health insurance bill which now awaits further refinement by the Senate’s solons.

 Oral onanism by lawmakers is nothing new. But floor debates seemed to have been better choreographed. Generally, the chair of the health committee would present the Totally Amazing Health Insurance Bill (TAHIB). A couple other Democrats would rise and amplify on themes not articulated by the health chair. Or, more commonly, rise because their re-elect this go-round was tougher than expected and a blast of free air time couldn’t hurt.

On a big deal issue like the TAHIB, the Speaker would bat clean-up.

 A cadre of Republicans  recite the plan’s myriad deficiencies. And that’s pretty much it. Kabuki concluded. Business transacted.

 The principle point of this sort of strategery, of course, is saving legislators from themselves.  Better to be widely perceived as a Gold Medal Chucklehead than run your yap and offer conclusive proof.

 Capitol history is rife with gruesome malaprops and mispronunciations, unintended buffoonery and floor speeches making Mad-Libs seem sonnets.

 Maybe back in the day one reason everyone didn’t feel as strident about increasing the air temperature of the legislative chambers was that lengthy committee hearings took place prior to the floor debate.

 So members might be more conversant with a bill’s contents than staring dolefully at a 257-page document thrust into their hands prior to a committee hearing a few hours before the same bill is slated to pass off the Assembly floor. 

Familiarity may breed contempt but it also breeds brevity.

 So why are lawmakers such skin-flints about allowing the vox populi to sing their paens of woe and degradation?

 It’s prolly cause legislators are super busy making California a better place for our children and our children’s children’s children. Cynics would say a scheduling conflict with that day’s 14 fund-raisers. Maybe just be a long agenda since less than squat got set before the hearing deadline.

Listen to this:

 “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” 

They don’t write ‘em like Government Code Section 11120 any more. Here’s a tip o’ the hat to Bill and Barry.

 That quote is the preamble to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, which imposes a number of fairly stringent requirements on state agencies just as the Ralph M. Brown Act does on local governments.

 Among the requirements are that state agencies allow the public to directly address the state agency on any item at the meeting. The agency can create regulations “limiting the total amount of time allocated for public comment on particular issues and for each individual speaker,” however.

 Except, guess what? Neither Bill, Barry nor Ralph has a scintilla of authority over the conducting of open meetings of the state Legislature.  The Legislature has its own law—the Grunsky-Burton Open Meeting Act. (Tip of the tongue, wasn’t it?)

Yes, John Burton and former state Senator Don Grunsky of San Francisco.

 A printout of the Grunsky-Burton Act, Government Code Section 9027 et. seq.,runs a smidge over two pages. It is the model of brevity compared to the 22-page Bagley-Keene Act.

 What the G-B Act says is that legislative floor sessions and committee hearings must be open to the public. Hiring and firing issues, consulting with lawyers, security stuff can be discussed in private. 

There is not a single word in the Grunsky-Burton Act that authorizes legislators to reduce the amount of time witnesses may testify. It does give both political parties the right to caucus behind closed doors but it is deafeningly silent on limiting public testimony.

The Legislature’s open meeting act refers to the Joint Rules of the Assembly and Senate. The Joint Rules, found on the webpage of the Assembly’s chief clerk, detail in callous tedium the process of enrollment, engrossing and just exactly how bills should be printed. 

Nowhere do the Joint Rules say: Two people, two minutes and you other mugs shout out your affiliation and shuffle off.

 Ergo, ipso locutor, i.e., e.g., in lieu, this cursory legal examination of the aforementioned issue inexorably results in an opinionization that legislative restrictions on the speech of the persons its members are elected to represent violates both the spirit and the intent of the Grunsky-Burton Act as well as Proposition 59 of 2004 (also written by John Burton) which enshrines in the California constitution the right of the public to public hearings and information on how public decisions are made.

 Let the public speak its peace. (How much worse than floor speeches?) Good committee chairs move hearings along just as briskly without any of these flagrantly unconstitutional restrictions.

 Not that it’s like a quid pro quo or anything but if something can be done about the public testimony business, there might be a little slack to be cut on the floor speech thing.

Little being the operative word.




Filed under: Venting


  1. Let’s hear more from this talented writer.

    Comment by Rob Gunnison — 1.09.2008 @ 1:37 pm

  2. You know what they say: Rules is rules…by the way, Gunny, good to see you weighing in here. I expect more…

    Comment by Mark Watts — 1.09.2008 @ 3:57 pm

  3. Finally, the clairon call of reason has escaped the fetid confines of cynicism. Well…not really but still great insight, knowlege and writing.

    Comment by Dominic DiMare — 1.10.2008 @ 7:14 pm

  4. Worth the read just for the “oral onanism” tidbit. Awesome. You are my homepage. Keep it interesting.

    Comment by J.P. Cativiela — 1.10.2008 @ 11:40 pm

  5. “I vent, therefor I am” — Cogito ergo tutti frutti? Oh, wait, thats the translation for “I meet, therefor I am”.

    Comment by j! — 1.11.2008 @ 9:20 am

  6. Thank goodness for some intellectual and comic (or is that comic intellectual?) relief after the downer of yesterday’s budget dump. Keep it coming please. We will need it to get through this year.

    Comment by Casey — 1.11.2008 @ 12:16 pm

  7. Hey, John Burton is from San Francisco, but not Don Grunsky. The Don hails from Watsonville, where what passes for a big time law firm in this corner of the world, still bears his name.

    Watsonville has sent some hitters to the state Senate. In addition to Grunsky, Henry Mello, the late and former Senate Majority Leader was born and raised in Watsonville.

    Fred Keeley

    Comment by Fred Keeley — 1.11.2008 @ 4:56 pm

  8. Oh come on! How many committee minds are ever changed by testimony!

    Comment by Richard — 1.17.2008 @ 2:11 pm

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