SACRAMENTO (AP) — Republican state lawmakers stood in united but futile opposition Thursday to the practice of approving empty bills that contain no real legislation but will be amended later to include budget legislation.
Democrats, who control both houses, each approved several so-called "shell" bills — the Senate 40 of them, and the Assembly 38. The bills contain no actual budget details but will be amended later to include specific language needed to enact the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Passing the bills now makes it quicker and easier to approve a state spending plan before the constitutional deadline in June. Republicans in both chambers lined up to oppose the practice, which senators said dates to 2004. The Assembly said the practice goes back even longer, at least to 1993.
Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Willows, said the blank bills let Democrats pass the final series of budget "in the dark of night," giving lawmakers little if any time to review the legislation.
He decried the irony of the Legislature passing a proclamation supporting Sunshine Week, which supports making government records and proceedings more readily available to the public, at the same time it approves "40 blank pieces of paper."
Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, who chairs the Assembly budget committee, said the procedure is efficient and does not prevent lawmakers from weighing in on budget bills when they are taken up later. The Democrat from Sherman Oaks dismissed concerns over what he characterized as a minor procedural matter.
The debate came the same week that the Center for Public Integrity released a study giving California a C- for transparency in its budget process.
"I'm concerned that my constituents will not have a chance to weigh in once we get these bills back from the Senate," said Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, R-Fresno.
Assemblyman Don Wagner, R-Irvine, called the process a travesty.
"If we pass this bill, we're showing up for our jobs but we're not doing them," he said.
Other Republican lawmakers said they have been entirely cut out of budget negotiations after voters approved Proposition 25 in 2010. The initiative lets Democrats pass the state's annual budget with a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds vote that had been required.
Tax increases still require two-thirds votes in both houses of the Legislature.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the blank bills will receive public committee hearings once they are amended to include budget language. Senate budget committees are holding 42 public hearings on Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed spending plan, while the Assembly plans about 60 hearings.
He mocked Republicans for criticizing a process in which they once participated, paraphrasing Captain Renault in the 1942 classic movie Casablanca: "I'm shocked, I'm shocked, there's gambling in these parts!"
Steinberg and the Senate's budget chairman, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said Republicans have cut themselves out of meaningful budget debate by signing pledges against raising taxes.
Republicans gave several examples of shell bills that ultimately came back for a vote within two hours after they had been amended to include their final language.
Several noted that they have repeatedly introduced bills that would require that budget details be made public 24- to 72 hours before a vote, only to see their legislation quickly die in committees.
"Let's have a real budget with real discussion, real votes," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
Steinberg later told reporters that the Republican demonstration "rings hollow," but acknowledged that some of the criticism is warranted.