Legislators End Suspense ... But Still, Mystery Moves on Bills

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Hundreds of bills were passed, amended, or rejected on Aug. 14 by the Legislature's two appropriations committees. (John Myers/KQED)
Hundreds of bills were passed, amended or rejected on Aug. 14 by the Legislature's two appropriations committees. (John Myers/KQED)

The young lobbyist leaning on the railing at the front of the hearing room seemed dumbfounded. Why had the bill he was supporting been killed by the powerful appropriations committee of the Assembly?

No one would tell him. And, after this week's traditional live-or-die hearings for hundreds of bills, he wasn't alone.

At issue is the somewhat cloudy process by which bills are removed from what's called the "suspense file," the way station for legislation that would cost $150,000 or more to implement in the pending fiscal year.

The bills are held until the final day for referral to the floor of each house, with the appropriations committees offering up three scenarios: pass the bill as written, pass it with last-minute amendments, or "hold" the bill in committee to die a quiet death without an official vote.

Those last two options are where Capitol watchers say the shroud of secrecy descends.

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"The reasons why something moves forward, and why something dies in the appropriations process, is a mystery to everybody," says Phillip Ung, public affairs director for the nonpartisan group California Forward.

At times, the pronouncements from the dais sounded more like an auctioneer than an Assembly member. Complex new amendments to bills were read in 20 seconds or less. No one in the audience had a written copy of those amendments. As of week's end, amendments to most of the bills that were approved still were not on the Legislature's public web portal.

But the chair of the Assembly's effort disagrees with critics who say the process lacks transparency.

"We have very big public hearings on every bill," says Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles). "And usually, the proposed amendments are stuff that are proposed in the public hearing process."

Gatto prefers to call the process "arcane," and agrees that too many bills are brought up for consideration each year.

Still, the most mysterious part of the hearings that clear the legislative suspense files is when it comes to bills that quietly die. No explanation is ever given. And because the legislation is technically only being "held" by the appropriations committee, no legislator ever has to cast a potentially tough public vote against it.

"We'll never know the true reasons why something lives or dies," said California Forward's Ung. "It either costs too much, or somebody -- somewhere -- didn't want it."

Bills that are held by the committee are even harder to track in the state Senate, where the appropriations chair never even mentions them. In Thursday's hearing, state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) simply skipped over dozens of pending bills in his presentation -- leaving the public to wonder whether they simply had missed some of the decisions.

A review of documents provided by the Senate on Friday showed at least 90 bills were, in fact, held in the appropriations committee to die without a public vote. Assembly records still appeared incomplete in a review late Friday.

As for the young lobbyist who wanted to know what happened to his bill, several Assembly members left the dais without making eye contact with him. No answer.

With a look of exasperation, the lobbyist walked out of the hearing room.