By Anne Lowe
OPEN GOVERNMENT – Assembly Speaker John Perez vowed in news conferences, on his website and in his recent inaugural speech that the California state budget would “not be written behind closed doors.” Late Oct. 1, the budget was written behind closed doors.
A week earlier, top lawmakers and Schwarzenegger had huddled hundreds of miles from the Capitol — meeting in the governor's Santa Monica offices because he had a severe cold. There, they announced a "framework" but scurried from the complex through a side exit and underground parking lot, avoiding questions.
John Vigna, a Pérez spokesman, defended this year's budget-writing procedures, citing more than 100 hearings and forums the speaker held across the state in the spring and summer, and legislative hearings on a series of tax and budget proposals, some of which were then scrapped or revised. By contrast, some budget bills have been voted on in recent years while they were still warm from the copying machine.
"This budget is the culmination of our commitment to openness and transparency in the process," Pérez said in a statement last weekend.
But few public hearings have been held for months on the overdue spending plan — now nearly 100 days tardy and the latest in California history. The legislative rank and file departed for recess as negotiations were occurring almost exclusively in the Capitol's back rooms.
Now that the spending plan has been packaged in private, the leaders have promised a one-day hearing Wednesday before a full vote of the Legislature on Thursday.
"One day is not a hearing," Steve Frank, a conservative activist in Simi Valley, wrote in an e-mail newsletter. "You know politicians are afraid of backlash when they keep the details of a bill secret," he wrote in another.
Pérez had said private talks were to be reserved for "the few rough edges that still need to be sanded out." But the topics tackled in private this year include how much to spend on education, what taxes to raise, how deeply to cut into the social safety net and an overhaul of the state's pension system.
California's budget was not always negotiated in the shadows. A decade or two ago, spending plans were shaped by months of painstaking committee work, public input and contentious debate. But as the fiscal shortfalls and partisan divide in Sacramento have widened, the shroud of secrecy has grown.
"We used to force members to come out from hiding and declare themselves, whether they're for or against something," said Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Montebello), who served in the Legislature, before term limits, in the 1980s.
Calderon, who is part of Pérez's Assembly leadership team, said the speaker is less secretive than his recent predecessors. He said hammering out the spending plan in public committee rooms instead of back rooms is the best way to hold lawmakers more accountable and "move members [of the Legislature] off their philosophical pedestals" and toward compromise.