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Blank bills key to California budget process approved amid protests [Updated]

March 22, 2012 |  2:42 pm

Assembly floor

In an annual quirk of California government, lawmakers approved 78 budget bills on Thursday -- and they were all blank.

The bills function as shells. As negotiations continue and tax revenues are tallied, they will be amended with actual budget details, then quickly passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

The Democrats in charge of the Capitol said it’s a longstanding method used to expedite the budget process. But the procedure sparked controversy on Thursday as Republicans accused Democrats of trying to sneak through bills “in the dark of night.”

Republicans are raising increased concerns about the practice because, for the second year, the budget doesn’t need two-thirds support to be approved. Since Democrats have wide majorities in the Legislature, they can modify and pass the shell bills without any Republican votes.

“Let's have a real budget with a real discussion and real votes," Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) said.

Last year one bill was filled with budget details and passed just over an hour later, said Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach).

"Do you think the public had an opportunity to read this bill?” he said. “Hardly anybody did."

Democrats countered by pointing out that senators have scheduled 42 subcommittee hearings to review individual parts of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal. Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said Republicans rarely showed up for the public meetings.

“To complain now seems a little disingenuous,” she said.

The Senate passed 40 bills and the Assembly passed 38, with lawmakers voting along party lines.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) later told reporters that he’d like to finish the budget earlier to allow greater public review. But he said Republicans’ complaints ring hollow because many signed pledges saying they won’t raise taxes.

“It might be a lot more meaningful if they were true participants in the budget debate,” he said. “And they’re not.”

[Updated 4:05 p.m.: Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Assembly Democrats, said Republicans use blank “spot” bills too. She said 31% of all GOP-sponsored bills are blank, as opposed to 27% of Democrat-sponsored bills.

“Republicans are very adept at using this process,” she said.

Republicans countered that those bills aren't being voted on while empty, unlike the budget legislation pushed by Democrats on Thursday.]

RELATED:

Lawmakers to Gov. Jerry Brown: Slow down

Analyst says Jerry Brown is wrong on tax revenue

Brown's tax proposal could mean more money to go around

-- Chris Megerian

Twitter: @chrismegerian

Photo: The California Assembly floor in a 2008 photo. Credit: Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times

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