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California's budget process has once again become mysterious and needs reform – Orange County Register

California Governor Gavin Newsom, left, applauds newly sworn-in California Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, June 30, 2023. Rivas replaces current Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), who has held the office since 2016. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Fifty years ago this month, a small miracle occurred in California's Capitol when a bipartisan majority of senators refused to accept a budget packed with election giveaways that had been secretly drafted by two powerful lawmakers.

This story is worth telling again because the current budget is also being written in secret. The process needs to be overhauled once again.

At the time, it was common practice for the chairmen of the two legislative budget committees to prepare the final state budget, taking into account the wishes of the governor and individual legislators. Accordingly, two Democratic chairmen, Senator Randolph Collier of the Senate Finance Committee and Representative Willie Brown of the legislative budget committee, drafted a $10.3 billion budget for 1974-75.

When Collier presented the budget to the full Senate, however, it drew sharp criticism because it included many state parks projects in the North Coast district, where Collier had run for re-election in 1976. That district was very different from his traditional political base in the northeastern part of the state due to a redistricting plan that had been approved by the state Supreme Court.

Collier's critics – especially liberal Democrats from urban areas who have long felt ignored by the coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats that dominates the Senate – called it “Park Barrel.”

They accused Collier of preferring to rest in his newly created political nest rather than serve the entire state.

“Urban areas like the one I live in never get any money,” complained Democrat Mervyn Dymally of Watts.

Collier was stripped of his chairmanship of the Finance Committee and replaced by Senator Anthony Beilenson, a Democrat from West Los Angeles. A new budget was drafted and the entire process was made more transparent through public, point-by-point discussions by a budget conference committee that included members of both houses.

Collier also lost his re-election.

The revamped system wasn't perfect, but it was a big step forward in allowing stakeholders, the public and journalists to see what was going on. One of the most interesting changes was that legislators had to voice their requests for specific items publicly, rather than whispering them to the two legislators who drafted the budget.

Unfortunately, budget transparency declined over time, especially as a Democratic-dominated legislature grappled with Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson in the 1980s and 1990s.

The public trials gave way to private negotiations between the so-called “Big 5” – the governor, two Democratic legislative leaders and two Republicans. The latter had to be included because at least some GOP votes were needed to achieve the required two-thirds majority.

Since both parties were involved in the process, it was difficult to introduce questionable items into the budget.

The budget process fell even further behind after voters in 2010 approved a Democratic ballot measure, Proposition 25, which reduced the budget vote to a simple majority. Democrats then won the gubernatorial election and achieved two majorities in both legislative chambers.

Anna Harden

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