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When Time Runs Short in Sacramento, Proposed Laws Appear in a Flash

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At this time of year, when California lawmakers are rushing to pass bills before the end of the legislative session, they often resort to a gruesome-sounding tactic: the “gut and amend.”

The process of emptying an existing Assembly or Senate bill of its language -- the gutting -- and then shoving it full of brand new language -- the amending -- has been around for more than a century in Sacramento, says legislative historian Alex Vassar. It's noted as being a favorite tactic of the powerful railroads in the early days.

Many lawmakers say “gut and amend” gives them the flexibility to adapt to the politics of the moment. But critics say that flexibility comes at the expense of transparency, denying the public a chance to see what its elected representatives are really doing.

"Gut-and-amend bills are tantamount to 'bait-and-switch schemes," said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonprofit government watchdog group.

The continued use of the gut-and-amend process is, in part, due to the relatively strict deadlines by which legislation must be introduced and then vetted through committees in both houses at the state Capitol.


Case in point: 2014's Proposition 1 water bond. The $7.5 billion borrowing plan was placed on the ballot by the Legislature through a bill enacted on August 13, 2014. While lawmakers and interest groups had been haggling for months, the actual bill language of wasn't in print until the very same day that it was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

In fact, the bill that contained the water bond -- Assembly Bill 1471 -- was a proposal related to the sale of fireworks until just two days before it quickly sailed  through the Assembly and Senate.

But other examples, critics argue, point to the fact that bypassing the bill deadlines allows influential groups to ask for special favors without much public scrutiny.

There are a number of examples of those kinds of gut-and-amend efforts: The 2011 effort to fast-track an NFL stadium in Los Angeles; a 2007 attempt to provide a pay raise to correctional officers; and this year's fast dash for permanently allowing the import of products made from the skins of kangaroos.

Efforts to limit the gut-and-amend process have consistently failed to gain traction. The most widely supported of these would require all legislation be in print for at least three days before a vote, thus giving the public a chance to review the details.

A constitutional amendment to do that was introduced in Sacramento in January, but failed to ever get a committee vote. Meantime, a similar proposal by a former legislative leader is now a finalist in the "Fix California" contest being led by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who's promised to help the winning idea get on the statewide ballot as an initiative.

Some Capitol watchers, though, suggest that the gut-and-amend procedure would likely fizzle out if only lawmakers will take a second look at their rigid schedule.

"Until we see comprehensive reform to the legislative calendar," said Phillip Ung of the bipartisan group California Forward, "gut and amends will continue."

To see other stories in the KQED News series on government influence, visit the California Political Muscle homepage.

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