Suspense Over the Assembly Suspense File

The state is grappling with something teetering darn close to fiscal Armageddon.

On the heels of closing a $43 billion gap between spending commitments and revenues in February, a new $24 billion gap has emerged thanks in part to further sinking of the economy over the past few months and voter rejection of three ballot measures on May 19 that accounted for $5.8 billion in budget solutions.

In light of that record-setting cash crunch, the Assembly Appropriations Committee has held back a hefty number of bills on what’s known as its “suspense file.”

Legislation on suspense has a price tag of over a certain amount. The measures are parked in the committee awaiting an assessment of the state’s fiscal condition before determining whether the bills should move forward.

The suspense file also serves a political purpose. It is a convenient place to dump Republican measures that Democratic leadership wants killed so their members aren’t confronted by a difficult or potentially politically harmful vote. To avoid that, the measures just stay on suspense.

Similarly, the Democratic leadership can use suspense to hold legislation by their own membership, measures which would either embarrass the lawmaker carrying the bill or place fellow Democrats in the awkward position of having to vote for it.

In the past, the chair of Appropriations has been a lawmaker from a safe legislative district capable of saying “no” with relative impunity to fellow lawmakers desperate to see their measures released to the Assembly floor.

Commonly, measures that have a large cost are cut down to lower cost versions, sometimes pilot projects or even reduced to intent language – a statement of what the Legislature would like to see happen on a particular issue someday.

The current chair, Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, has ambitions of becoming speaker of the lower house, which might cause him to say “no” somewhat less often.

In recognition of the state’s fiscal condition, the cost threshold of a bill warranting it being sent to suspense has been lowered from $120,000 to $50,000.

There are 412 measures on suspense. Listing them consumes 19 pages in the Assembly Daily File. (Scroll down to Page 29.) They will be dealt with May 28 – one way or another.

The bills span virtually every topic. Some small; some more significant:

Car washes, dog fighting, invasive mussels, human trafficking, pesticides, arson, health care, shorthand reporting, fire engines, foster care, global warming, public contracts. There’s even a bill on Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

If all 412 were to be freed by the committee, approved by both houses and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – which they won’t be – it would cost at least $21 million – and probably much more.

That would be $21 million the state’s general fund sorely lacks.

The committee’s staff is one of the best in the Capitol and has a long track record of artful handling of suspense.

But it’s still a political process.


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