By Laurel Rosenhall
Published: Monday, Oct. 17, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

It was after midnight on the last day of the legislative session last month when the state Senate took up a controversial bill concerning election laws for the very first time.

Most bills go through a months-long process of hearings, negotiations, amendments and votes. Not this one.

Senate Bill 202 was written about 24 hours earlier, when Democrat Loni Hancock of Berkeley deleted the language in a bill about filing fees on voter initiatives and replaced it with a highly political proposal to change the state’s election laws in ways that will favor Democrats in 2012.

“The lack of process in this bill is inexcusable,” Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance told his colleagues that night. “We as Democrats should be ashamed at how this came to the Senate floor.”

Hancock’s bill was the most extreme example this year of the Legislature’s penchant for writing new laws at the last minute – but it was by no means the only one.

The Legislature wrote 48 bills in the last three weeks of the regular session, long after the deadlines for most law-making procedures had passed. They did so by deleting the text of existing bills and replacing it with something new and often unrelated – a process known as “gut and amend.”

Lawmakers sent 22 of those bills to the governor, who signed all but three of them.

That means 46 percent of gut-and-amend bills from the regular session cleared the Legislature, higher than the 35 percent rate for bills that went through the normal process. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed gut-and-amends at about the same rate as he vetoed all regular session bills – roughly 14 percent.

Among those he signed was Hancock’s bill, which flew through the Assembly on the last day of session.

It received a 13-minute hearing of the lower house’s Elections Committee that was announced with less than two hours’ notice. The full Assembly passed the bill that afternoon and sent it to the Senate, which took it up at 12:36 a.m.

“I’m going to vote yes on this bill, but I’m absolutely not happy about it,” Lieu said before SB 202 cleared the Senate on a nearly party-line vote.

The governor said last week that he would “like to see things earlier in the process,” but that he didn’t view gut-and-amend bills differently from those that went through the regular process.

“As they say,” Brown told reporters, “making sausage and legislation ain’t pretty.”

Public input blocked

Last-minute bills bypass much of the lawmaking process Americans learn about in civics class. They are widely criticized by good-government advocates, who say the hasty process omits public input.

“It’s not transparent,” said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. “The public doesn’t know what’s going on, only the insiders do.”

These were among the gut-and-amend bills the governor signed this month:

• Assembly Bill 853, which began as a bill about college tuition for veterans but became a companion measure to a bill banning removal of shark fins.

• Senate Bill 292, which changed from a bill concerning community college transfer students to a bill that will speed up the environmental review process for a new stadium in Los Angeles.

• Senate Bill 946, which started out as a bill about sanitation in restaurants and ended up as one requiring insurance companies to provide certain treatment for autistic children.

Some state legislatures do not allow bills to go through such radical changes, said Brenda Erickson, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and Washington bar amendments that change the purpose of a bill, she said.

California lawmakers say the ability to overhaul bills at the last minute is important.

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