McGeorge Adjunct Professor Chris Micheli




California’s budget process continues to be and have a major impact on the state’s public policy agenda. From my vantage point, this is because numerous policy changes are enacted every year as part of the state budget. In other words, state public policy continues to be done as part of the funding of our state government.

For decades our state budget required a two-thirds super majority vote for adoption. This often resulted in a late adoption of the state budget and unfortunate partisan wrangling over priorities for spending state tax dollars. With the Legislature generally controlled by the Democratic Party and the Governor’s office often occupied by a Republican chief executive, the state budgets were often negotiated with the “Big Five” which included the Governor, the Senate President Pro Tem, the Assembly Speaker, the Senate Republican Leader, and the Assembly Republican Leader.

Some of the Republicans viewed the budget negotiations as an opportunity to, if you will, leverage their votes that were needed in order to get to that magical two-thirds threshold. They started thinking what can we leverage our budget votes for? What they quickly figured out was that they would often use those votes to address policy issues or even specific bills that they wanted passed but they couldn’t get through the normal Democrat-controlled Legislature and the normal legislative process.

After a fair amount of time of this, repeated budget delays, and, frankly, a feeling of being leveraged for policy changes that sometimes the Democrat-majority found difficult to accept, interest groups placed a statewide ballot measure, Prop 25, before the electorate which reduced the vote threshold from that two-thirds majority to a simple majority. That’s been in effect the last half a dozen years. As a result of this measure that was adopted by the voters, there is now on time budgets and negotiations are no longer amongst the Big Five.

Some people certainly thought that legislators’ votes would no longer be leveraged to perhaps adopt objectionable policy changes sometimes as part of the annual budget deal. The reality, of course, is that policy changes still occur in those budget negotiations. All those years of adopting policy changes as part of the state budget has certainly created proponents of that process in both the Governor’s office as well as in Democratic legislators’ offices.

Essentially they all like the idea of the expedited review and adoption of bills and policy changes that occur in that shortened budget process rather than pursuing bills through a lengthy and often contentious bill process that can begin in January or February with the introduction of your bill and continue – if it’s an even numbered year through August 31st, or if it’s an odd numbered year through the middle of September.

These policy changes are accomplished through the use of trailer bills. Trailer bills make policy changes necessary to implement the spending in the state budget. They are called trailer bills because they trail the main budget bill. There used to be just a handful of these trailer bills, but now their number has seemingly mushroomed as the need for more and more policy changes has grown. We often end up seeing many more of these bills being used to adopt sometimes controversial law changes that may or may not have been successful had they been tried through the normal legislative process.

You can find a full transcript of today’s podcast here.