This week’s chaotic, last-minute bill passing is bad for Californians

Why lawmakers are afraid to go where no lawmaker has gone before

Greg Lucas’ state-politics column Capitol Lowdown appears every-other week in SN&R. He also blogs at

Don’t disturb lawmakers right now, they’re deep in the plak-tau.

Plak-tau is the Vulcan “blood fever” manifested during the final stages of pon farr, the once-every-seven-years Vulcan mating obsession, which is pretty crazed by itself.

For members of the ever-so-terrestrial California Senate and Assembly, their plak-tau is neither about mating, nor is it “irrational and instinct-driven behavior,” as one Vulcan-to-English dictionary describes it, restricted to seven-year intervals.

Legislative plak-tau is an uncontrollable obsession centered on rapidly, and often blindly, approving bills—hundreds upon hundreds of them—as though failing to do so would be fatal.

Unpleasantly enough, the legislative blood fever manifests itself simultaneously in the Assembly and the Senate twice each year: once during the week before bills must leave their house of origin and, again, 10 days before the legislative session concludes.

This year, lawmakers go home, or at least go away, on September 13, so stay clear of the White Sepulcher the first couple weeks after Labor Day.

The date of this SN&R issue finds lawmakers immersed in intensive bill passing. Assembly bills must exit their house by May 31, or they’re dead until 2014. Same for Senate bills. Hence, May 30 is beaming-up bills day.

As portrayed in the original 1967 Star Trek episode “Amok Time,” pon farr and the plak-tau is chaotic, violent and, for Mr. Spock, it ends badly.

The Legislature’s version is comparable, except it usually ends badly for Californians.

For those not directly involved, and even some of those who are, the legislative process seems quite alien. During these beat-the-deadline death scrums, the Legislature’s actions lie beyond the reach of human comprehension.

Change after change to California’s already voluminous body of law is outlined in a few brief paragraphs written by a staffer for a lawmaker, who then haltingly reads the description giving every impression of not knowing the contents of their own measure. In 60 to 90 seconds, the legislation is approved.

These bills carry potential costs for consumers and employers, spend billions, regulate the use of various substances—toxic or otherwise—and increase penalties for crimes and benefits for public employees.

Given their potential impact on 38 million people, isn’t a higher level of attention warranted before casting a vote?

Periodically, some bill generates more than a minute’s worth of interest. Usually it’s one that shouldn’t.

In the Assembly recently, a measure that would ban lead bullets—ostensibly because of their impact on the environment—spawned a 15-minute debate. The previous bill was dealt with in under two minutes.

The author of the lead-is-dead bill said the fragmenting of lead bullets in game, wildlife or cattle is akin to “spoon feeding lead to our children.” Opponents, all Republicans, said banning lead bullets would effectively end hunting, and that the evidence on the dilatory effects of lead bullets wasn’t conclusive.

When the 15 minutes of arguments against the bill concluded, Democrats, who hold a comfortable majority in the lower house, passed the bill easily.

Seriously, why bother?

Is this slapdash, (nonlead) rifle-shot method of policy-making necessary? Of course not.

Sure, people procrastinate. But a hefty chunk of this work could easily have been dealt with sooner.

But it never happens. Limits on bill introductions have been imposed. Changes in deadlines, encouragement of earlier amending, procedural tweaks to speed legislation along all have come to nothing.

That leaves only two conclusions. One is that legislators feel the same way about the situation as Mick and the Stones do about rock ’n’ roll: They like it. Or it really is a DNA-deep plak-tau for which no cure exists other than leaving public office, voluntarily or otherwise.