STAFF REPORTS
Published: 23 March 2012 07:29 PM

State lawmakers had a debate last week about nothing.

Nothing, as in the contents of some six-dozen sparsely worded “spot,” or shell, bills that someday will contain hundreds of pages of legislation implementing California’s 2012-13 budget.

There once was a time when the Assembly and Senate crafted their own budgets and then reconciled them. Starting in the late 1990s, however, lawmakers goosed along the contentious process by approving a series of spot bills that awaited the outcome of negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders.

The procedural votes have become more contentious as the state’s budget problems persist. Some Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have balked at voting for the spot bills because it could be depicted in future campaigns as voting for the final budget.

In 2010, voters approved Prop. 25, which allows majority Democrats to pass budget legislation on their own. Democrats nevertheless have continued to advance spot bills, as they did last Thursday, saying they would ensure timely passage of a budget this summer.

Republicans accused Democrats of planning to craft a budget in secret and inserting the contents into the budget bills just before a vote. Some of the bills, they predicted, would be used to pass measures that have no connection to the budget but which supporters want to take effect immediately.

“Passing budget bills where the details will be decided in a back room shuts taxpayers out of the budget process,” said Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, the Assembly’s No. 2 Republican.

Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, introduced a bill that would require budget legislation to be in print for three days before lawmakers vote on it. A hearing date has not been scheduled.

IN THE FAMILY

Washington-based political watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington last week issued a 347-page report detailing what the organization deemed to be instances of nepotism in Congress.

The group determined that scores of lawmakers have paid family members through their congressional offices, used their campaign accounts to donate to relatives’ campaigns or who are related to Washington lobbyists.

In total, CREW determined 248 members – 105 Democrats and 143 Republicans – used their positions to financially benefit family members or themselves. The report noted that Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, spent money from his campaign account on his sons’ races; Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, has a father-in-law who was a lobbyist and that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, used his campaign account and political action committee to reimburse himself for the costs of events and travel.

The report, which doesn’t accuse members of breaking rules or the law, singled out a handful of lawmakers, including Rep. Jerry Lewis. The report notes that the Redlands Republican’s wife, Arlene Willis, serves as his chief of staff. It also mentioned that he directed funding to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where his brother, John Lewis, works.

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