Almost everyone has some idea for fixing whatever is wrong in Sacramento, ranging from new campaign spending limits to a requirement that legislators wear NASCAR-style sponsor logos. Such reforms, however interesting they might sound in theory, never change anything.

The problem, of course, is the state government is so big and spends so much money that lobbyists will always try to control and influence it. Real reform would mean reining in the power of government – an idea that’s never on the table.

Does that mean we abandon any hope of making state government more accountable? Probably not, but it’s important to focus on reforms that work – rather than simply venting our populist anger.

One of the most significant proposed reforms since the passage of property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978 is headed toward the November ballot. Backed by former Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and funded by moderate GOP donor Charles Munger Jr., “The California Legislature Transparency Act” is far more significant than its title would suggest.

The initiative has such potential to shake up the way legislation is passed that legislative leaders spent the week trying to undermine it. Backers of the Blakeslee/Munger measure have submitted a million-plus signatures. It is likely to pass by overwhelming margins. Opponents’ only way to derail it is to confuse voters by placing a similar-sounding, but weaker, measure on the ballot and passing a related reform in the Capitol.

The transparency act’s main provision requires that “all bills must be in print in their final form, and available to the public on the internet, for a minimum of 72 hours before a vote can be taken.”

Legislators often pass “gut-and-amend” measures in which the original bill’s language is stripped out and replaced with something completely different. The transformed bill is rammed through in the final moments of the session. Often, legislators haven’t even read the details of what they approved. No one – except for the legislative leaders and lobbyists who cobbled together the bill – knows what happened until it’s too late to do anything about it.

The initiative also requires all committee hearings to be recorded (audio and video) and made publicly available within 24 hours. It gives the public the right to record hearings and floor sessions with their own phones and recorders.

The measure is based on the simple concept that openness leads to better government and less bad behavior.

No wonder the Legislature is scurrying for an alternative. Many lawmakers want an alternative, SCA14, to go on the same ballot. If this constitutional amendment passes with more votes, the Blakeslee-Munger initiative would not go into effect. SCA14, passed in committee, pretends to deal with the 72-hour transparency issue but critics say it’s so laden with loopholes it renders the reform nearly meaningless.

For instance, SCA14 requires a 72-hour notice only in the second legislative house. Instead of expanding transparency, it would allow one house to game the system – and foist gutted and amended bills on the other house. SCA14 also removes the transparency act’s language that would void any law passed in violation of the rule. Without that language, legislators could ignore its provisions and pay no price for it.

Ironically, legislators also used the gut-and-amend process to pass in committee Assembly Bill 884, which deals with the public-recording portion of the Blakeslee-Munger initiative. Because this is a legislative measure and not a constitutional amendment, the Legislature can change any of its provisions with a simple majority vote.

The initiative allows recordings to be used for “any legitimate purpose,” but AB884 changes that to “any legal purpose.” With a simple majority vote, legislators can once again make it illegal to use video for campaign ads. That’s an almost-certain violation of the First Amendment that exists in current law, but would be repealed by the initiative.

Opponents say some of the most important legislation would not have passed because the 72-hour rule would have given opponents time to organize to stop it. If that’s the case, why don’t we just dispense with the entire legislative process and let leadership hammer out all bills in secrecy?

I’m being facetious, of course. In reality, legislators should stop ramming things through at the last minute. They should respect the public and give all groups – pro and con – time to weigh in. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. Clearly, the Legislature’s latest actions show the transparency act is likely to have a real impact in the Capitol.

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