PD Editorial: The last of the last-minute surprises?
By The Editorial Board | Sep 3, 2016

California’s legislative almost inevitably ends with at least one surprise.

This year was no exception. In the hours before the 2015-16 session concluded Wednesday, lawmakers unveiled and quickly approved a plan to spend nearly $1 billion.

The money, from the state’s cap-and-trade program, is earmarked for climate change mitigation efforts. It has been piling up for several years while legislators and the governor decided how to allocate it.

They may have come up with an impeccable plan.

We certainly hope so. But all we can do is hope, because, as is usually the case with these end-of-session surprises, the public didn’t get an opportunity to review the details before the plan was inserted into a bill and approved.

An outline of the deal identifies broad categories of spending including:

$133 million to subsidize purchases of zero-emission vehicles.

$135 million for transit projects.

$140 million in grants for disadvantaged communities to develop their own climate change programs.

$40 million for forestry programs.

$20 million for weatherization and renewable energy projects.

The plan approved by the Legislature totals $900 million and leaves another $462 million in cap-and-trade funds for future allocation.

“California’s combating climate change on all fronts and this plan gets us the most bang for the buck,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a written statement. “It directs hundreds of millions where it’s needed most — to help disadvantaged communities, curb dangerous super pollutants and cut petroleum use — while saving some for the future.”

But when those disadvantaged communities decide how to spend their share of the money, the rules will be different.

They can’t announce a spending plan and enact it in the same day. That would violate the Ralph M. Brown Act, a venerable state law that guarantees the public an opportunity to participate in decisions made by local elected officials. Agendas must be posted 72 hours in advance, and staff reports and other background material also must be made available.

State legislators exempt themselves from such niceties, typically arguing that allowing time for public scrutiny would also allow time for special interest intervention.

Bushwah. There’s no shortage of special interest intervention in the legislative process, whether deals are cut in private or in public.

But this may be the last year in which last-minute deals are allowed.

Proposition 54 on the Nov. 8 ballot would amend the California constitution to subject the state Legislature to essentially the same rules that govern cities, counties, school districts and other local government entities. Except in the event of natural disaster or public emergency, Proposition 54 would require that the text of a bill be available in print and online for 72 hours before coming up for a vote in the state Senate or the Assembly.

There was no emergency, no natural disaster driving the timing of the cap-and-trade vote. Brown and legislative leaders had been negotiating for two years before announcing and approving a plan without any opportunity for public scrutiny.

And that, unfortunately, was no surprise.

Senate President pro tempore Kevin de Leon bangs the gavel to end the 2016-17 legislative session. (RICH PEDRONCELLI / Associated Press)