Budget Process Needs More Sunshine

A few weeks ago the state Assembly passed a resolution celebrating “Sunshine Week,” touting the Legislature's commitment to transparency.

I find it funny that a week later, on a straight party-line vote, we passed out and sent to the Senate 40 budget bills that contained no language.

Zilch. Zero.

The California Constitution requires the budget to be passed by June 15, and if the budget is not passed on time, then legislators do not get paid.

Since the initiative passed, the Legislature has passed an on-time budget every year. However, I would personally prefer a well-thought-out budget rather than a rushed, on-time budget.

Now that the budget bills are over in the Senate, Gov. Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and Senate Speaker Pro Tem Kevin De Leуn will negotiate the budget in secret.

As we approach the June 15 deadline, the legislative leadership will populate the bills and then try to slam them through both houses of the Legislature at the last minute — without public scrutiny.

Under the present rules, the budget only has to be in print for 24 hours. This is not enough time to analyze a $108 billion spending plan.

During the budget debate in my first year in the Legislature, I tried to pull the budget bill up on my computer. The screen read “Document not available.”

That means 38 million Californians did not have the opportunity to review the budget before their legislators voted on it.

As taxpayers, we should all be appalled by this process. The majority party prioritizes whatever they feel is necessary, without debate or public review.

The majority party's handling of the budget process sets us up for scandals like the CalFire slush fund, when a lack of budgeting oversight allowed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to establish a $3.66 million off-the-books account.

We can do better. We have to do better. I have co-authored a number of bills to make government more transparent and accountable.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 would prevent empty budget bills from being passed, gutted, and rewritten. ACA 1 would require that all bills be in print for at least 72 hours before final votes are taken.

This would give legislators and the public time to find out what bills are proposed to actually do — before legislators vote on them.

Lack of oversight and long-term planning in the state budget sets California up for budget problems when revenue falls. Currently, state agencies are only required to justify new spending in their budget. Whatever money was spent in the previous year is rolled over automatically to the new budget. This is called baseline budgeting.

Assembly Concurrent Resolution 45 would institute a zero-based budgeting timeline for California's 40 largest departments and agencies. Under zero-based budgeting, every penny of a state department's budget must be reviewed and justified.

This year the Assembly voted to apply zero-based budgeting principles when reviewing the University of California's budget.

It also makes sense to establish a two-year budget. ACA 5 would do just that.

A two-year budget would mean that the governor would submit a budget proposal for two fiscal years, instead of one. The first year the Legislature would work to adopt a budget and the second year would be dedicated to conducting oversight of state agencies to ensure the taxpayers' money was being spent effectively and efficiently.

From roads to schools to water infrastructure, the decisions made in Sacramento affect every Californian. Citizens have a right to know what their government is doing.

These budget bills will help strip the veil of secrecy and provide greater oversight as to how the people's money is being spent.

The state Legislature has received an “F” from the California Public Interest Research Group for its lack of transparency in government spending.

It is time to blow away the smoke in our state Capitol and bring some sunshine to the Legislature.