Chaotic, Last-Minute Bill Passing Bad for Californians

Why lawmakers are afraid to go where no lawmaker has gone before

By Greg Lucas

Sacramento News & Review, May 30, 2013 — Don’t disturb lawmakers right now, they’re deep in the plak-tau.

Plak-tau is the Vulcan “blood fever” manifested during the final stages of pon farr, the once-every-seven-years Vulcan mating obsession, which is pretty crazed by itself.

For members of the ever-so-terrestrial California Senate and Assembly, their plak-tau is neither about mating, nor is it “irrational and instinct-driven behavior,” as one Vulcan-to-English dictionary describes it, restricted to seven-year intervals.

Legislative plak-tau is an uncontrollable obsession centered on rapidly, and often blindly, approving bills—hundreds upon hundreds of them—as though failing to do so would be fatal.Unknown-6

Unpleasantly enough, the legislative blood fever manifests itself simultaneously in the Assembly and the Senate twice each year: once during the week before bills must leave their house of origin and, again, 10 days before the legislative session concludes.

This year, lawmakers go home, or at least go away, on September 13, so stay clear of the White Sepulcher the first couple weeks after Labor Day.

The date of this SN&R issue finds lawmakers immersed in intensive bill passing. Assembly bills must exit their house by May 31, or they’re dead until 2014. Same for Senate bills. Hence, May 30 is beaming-up bills day.

As portrayed in the original 1967 Star Trek episode “Amok Time,” pon farr and the plak-tau is chaotic, violent and, for Mr. Spock, it ends badly.

The Legislature’s version is comparable, except it usually ends badly for Californians.

For those not directly involved, and even some of those who are, the legislative process seems quite alien. During these beat-the-deadline death scrums, the Legislature’s actions lie beyond the reach of human comprehension.

Change after change to California’s already voluminous body of law is outlined in a few brief paragraphs written by a staffer for a lawmaker, who then haltingly reads the description giving every impression of not knowing the contents of their own measure. In 60 to 90 seconds, the legislation is approved.

These bills carry potential costs for consumers and employers, spend billions, regulate the use of various substances—toxic or otherwise—and increase penalties for crimes and benefits for public employees.

Unknown-5Given their potential impact on 38 million people, isn’t a higher level of attention warranted before casting a vote?

Periodically, some bill generates more than a minute’s worth of interest. Usually it’s one that shouldn’t.

In the Assembly recently, a measure that would ban lead bullets—ostensibly because of their impact on the environment—spawned a 15-minute debate. The previous bill was dealt with in under two minutes.

The author of the lead-is-dead bill said the fragmenting of lead bullets in game, wildlife or cattle is akin to “spoon feeding lead to our children.” Opponents, all Republicans, said banning lead bullets would effectively end hunting, and that the evidence on the dilatory effects of lead bullets wasn’t conclusive.

When the 15 minutes of arguments against the bill concluded, Democrats, who hold a comfortable majority in the lower house, passed the bill easily.

Seriously, why bother?

Is this slapdash, (nonlead) rifle-shot method of policy-making necessary? Of course not.

Sure, people procrastinate. But a hefty chunk of this work could easily have been dealt with sooner.

But it never happens. Limits on bill introductions have been imposed. Changes in deadlines, encouragement of earlier amending, procedural tweaks to speed legislation along all have come to nothing.

That leaves only two conclusions. One is that legislators feel the same way about the situation as Mick and the Stones do about rock ’n’ roll: They like it. Or it really is a DNA-deep plak-tau for which no cure exists other than leaving public office, voluntarily or otherwise.


Filed under: Opinionation


  1. This column captures only a snapshot of the life of a bill. Every bill gets the whole magilla treatment in committee, staff analysis, and more before it gets to the floor. And most bills aren’t about a major issue of our time, but rather small changes in law, many times technical.

    And if a bill passes one chamber, it gets this same treatment all over again in the other.

    Comment by Steven Maviglio — 6.03.2013 @ 11:51 pm

  2. Greg – All in all, a good piece. However,in my view, the comic relief of the Star Wars analogy weakened it and took from the seriousness of what occurs here. This is a serious issue and one that ought to have more attention paid to it. But outside of some of the media like you, it is ignored by the traditional media. Last session’s “lumber assessment/tax” that passed as the last item of real business without any hearings, closed door deal-making, and some careful vote counting, should be the poster child for this kind of abuse. Very few legislators knew what they were voting on and even fewer understood the consequences of their action. And now, five Democrat assembly members have taken it on themselves to tell the Board of Equalization that they “know” what the legislatvie intent of the bill was – some seven months afterwards. Shame on them. Maybe a Vulcan mind meld is needed..

    Comment by Ken Dunham — 6.04.2013 @ 8:03 am

  3. Oh, Brother. I have read Greg’s piece with interest and a resounding Bravo! — the piece is spot on, relevant and important. And the problems need solution, though that solution by virtue of the source of the problems, will be difficult to come by. The Legislature, to put it nicely, is busted and seems disinterested, at best, to fix itself. THEN, I read the comments by Messrs. Maviglio and Dunham. Mr. Maviglio, a student of political chaos, couldn’t be more incorrect in his stated representations that because a measure is “examined” in committee, by staff, and “more” (whatever “more” is), it has been carefully considered by the Members. WOW! Where is this planet with this make-believe Legislature that gives careful thought and thorough scrutiny of the legislation for which they are responsible? Steve — please, dude – get serious! 1) There are a ridiculous number of bills introduced each session, many of which are duplications of each other, others that are just plain silly (by ANY measure), and still others are are merely vehicles for the Member to amass political points. To suggest that the Members carefully consider the intent and content of each of these bills is, well, just foolish – and untrue. The same goes for their staffs. Member staff does the bidding of their employer (Legislator) and Committee staff the will of the assigned Chairs; 2) Committee consideration is equally screwed — ever been to a hearing? Members coming and going, fooling with cell phones, eating lunch, grabbing a coffee, talking to their neighbors – and RARELY listening to, or considering anything that is being offered by those giving testimony; 3) Votes on bills are largely determined by whose bill it is, who is sponsoring the measure, and who owes what to who. Make no mistake – this isn’t simply a jaded or cynical analysis – the problem is chronic, is getting worse, and the Members simply do not have the will or the cojones to police themselves or the process; 4) And, while many of the measures deal with tiny details of already existing law, that does not mean that scrutiny and consideration is not required. Just goes to the notion that Members should be allowed a MAXIMUM introduction of no more than, say, 5 bills per session. Believe it – it would be a beginning. And while the example offered by Mr. Dunham of “closed door deal making” is apt, it is an example representative of literally hundreds of such “deals” of one sort or another that occur every session – by members of BOTH parties, sir, whether or not they are in the majority. So, CUDOS, Greg — great column! Thanks! Hope someone, somewhere, on this planet or another, can craft a solution before the whole damn thing goes up in smoke!

    Comment by S Carey — 6.04.2013 @ 9:00 am

  4. The “solution” is called Leadership. If the Senate and Assembly leaders would forbid all the rule waiving, half-conscious attendance (and voting) in committee and on the Floors,and definitely limit the number of bills allowed per Member, a lot of the sad state of affairs could be changed. Restoration of the Committee system whereby like-topic bills were all consolidated into one measure, deeply analyzed and vetted, and given the purview of the Chair (with all of the other authors being co-authors), it would go a long way toward restoring respect for what was once a respectable process.

    Comment by ThinkChick — 6.04.2013 @ 5:35 pm

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