Opinion | California’s budget process is corrupt, no longer transparent, and has poor priorities

Monday, August 29, 2022

CA Budget Process is Shameful

By Jim Nielsen | Orange County Register

PUBLISHED: August 28, 2022 at 11:56 a.m. | UPDATED: August 28, 2022 at 11:56 a.m.

This is my final season in California’s Legislature. My final budget. It’s bittersweet. In mydecades representing the people in the state Assembly and Senate, I’ve seen a gradualerosion in the traditions and processes of each house. In respect for the rules of theinstitution. In respect and trust for each other.

Traditions, processes and respect are what pull together a diverse body of elected officialsfor a singular purpose – representing the people. Collaboration and camaraderie –fundamental to good legislating – is diminishing. Most noticeably, the budget process is nolonger of and for the people.

How it used to work…

In January, the governor would put forth a proposed budget. Starting in March, there wouldbe two months of budget subcommittee hearings, where most issues would receive votes. Inmid-May, after collection of the bulk of state sales and income taxes, the governor wouldprovide updated revenue figures and make a few adjustments.2/3 

In early June, each house would approve and publish its own version of the budget. Then a budget conference committee, with members from both houses and parties, would hold public hearings to iron out differences. The compromise budget would be available publicly and go to the full membership of each house for more discussion and voting prior to sending it to the governor. 

Passed along with the budget bill would be five to ten “trailer” bills, the vehicles that make statutory changes necessary to implement the budget. The governor might veto a proposal or two, but then would sign the budget. 

There was adequate time for the public to learn what was proposed and provide input, and for legislators to read and understand the numerous aspects of it. 

How it works now 

However, over the years, fewer people – the governor, Assembly Speaker, Senate President, a few high-ranking Democrats – hold the process tightly, with major decisions made mostly behind closed doors. 

Consensus has been lost. Not having a conference committee has recently become a habit. Opposing viewpoints have been cut out of the process. This year, even rank-and-file Democrats were cut out. Several aired their displeasure publicly. 

Transparency has been lost. There are fewer public hearings, and members of the public who want to speak generally are limited to stating their name and specifying their support or opposition. 

Turns out, the Democrats in charge find it more convenient to hide the budget process from the public. 

Legislators must read and vote on multiple bills dozens to hundreds of pages long, filled with massive detail and containing billions of dollars in spending that they don’t – can’t – fully understand. How are the people of California supposed to know what’s happening if even legislators are unaware?Honesty has been lost. The budget is passed on time so legislators won’t lose their pay, but the trailer bills – 30 this year! – may not be passed for days, weeks or even into the year after the June 30 deadline. 

Major policy changes unrelated to the budget are being jammed into trailer bills, often with no significant prior testimony on their specifics. It’s easier to play hide-the-pea that way. Trailer bills avoid the usual legislative process of examination by one or more policy committees in both houses and two fiscal committees. 

Some things hidden in trailer bills have nothing to do with the budget. They’re purely political, such as adding a proposed constitutional amendment to the ballot so it will have the advantage of being listed as Proposition 1, above all other measures.3/3 

This is not good democracy. 

We must hold the line on spending growth to protect the state from the next economic downturn and the people from any manufactured need to hike taxes and fees. 

We need to stop creating new programs and make the ones already existing work as intended. That means providing oversight and fixing broken programs so we don’t keep pouring money down budgetary black holes. Never forget the complete breakdown of the state’s Employment Development Department and Unemployment Insurance program. How many citizens have been aggrieved by that agency, particularly in the past three years? Inefficient. Incompetent. 

How would I describe the budget of my final year? Lack of transparency. Let-us-get-paid budget. Corrupt process. Poor priorities. Budget of a few. No accountability. Fake, feel-good budget. 

The budget process as it takes place now is a shameful fraud on the people of this state. You deserve better. Be informed. Demand a return to an open process.