Last week, after a six-hour behind-closed-doors meeting of the dominant State Assembly Democrats, Speaker Anthony Rendon and MP Robert Rivas simultaneously issued press releases.
“I appreciate the support of my colleagues to continue as speaker of the California Convention and leader of our Democratic caucus,” Rendon said.
“I am honored that my fellow Democrats have placed their trust in me to chair the assembly,” Rivas said.
These seemingly contradictory statements reflected a political accord that appeared to have settled a months-long conflict over who would head the assembly.
Months earlier, Rivas had stated that he had the votes to oust Rendon, but the speaker refused to step aside and a power struggle ensued, with each trying to elect as many of his supporters as possible.
In the end, a bargain was struck just two days after the election. Rendon, spokesman for the past six years, would retain the position until 30 June 2023, after which Rivas would take over.
Both were winners in a sense.
Rendon is being pushed out of the legislature by term limits in 2024 and should therefore, for practical reasons, have given up the speakership sometime next year. He would be leaving the office a few months early now, but at least he wouldn’t suffer the embarrassment of being forced out.
On the other hand, Rivas will achieve his long-awaited goal of becoming speaker with all that entails power over the internal workings of the California Assembly and its impact on legislation.
Whether the deal or what it brings will make a real difference to nearly 40 million Californians is problematic. There are few, if any, ideological differences between the two Latino politicians, and the most interesting aspect of the move from Rendon to Rivas is that the latter represents a rural district in the Salinas Valley, breaking the tendency of legislative leaders to come from big cities to originate.
A speakership from Rivas would only be noteworthy if he did something about the ever-increasing tendency of the legislature to become more secretive about how it handles public affairs.
Secrecy was the way of legislation for more than a century, but procedural reform took hold in the 1970s. The previously opaque process of preparing a state budget has been subject to public and media scrutiny, new laws have been passed to shed light on campaign contributions and lobbying, and the public has even been given access to the legislature’s internal spending.
The reformist era lasted more than three decades, culminating when voters stripped legislatures of the power to redesignate their own districts after each census and turned them over to an independent commission.
Over the past decade, as Democrats gained legislative dominance, they restricted public access and input.
Legislative hearings on bills have been greatly shortened. Pros and cons have only minutes to speak, and public testimony has been all but abolished.
Each year, hundreds of bills are brought to the “Appropriations Committees” in both houses and their fate is simply announced without explanation.
After persuading voters to cut two-thirds of the budget vote, Democrats began stuffing budget “trailer bills” with countless special-interest goodies and major policy changes that sidestepped even superficial public contributions.
Budgets and trailer bills are written entirely in secret, and the public has just 72 hours to peruse thousands of pages of dense legal language before they go into effect — and only because a 2016 ballot measure banned the 72-hour notification required.
If Rivas really wants to make a difference, he’d let some sunshine into the ever-darkening Capitol.
CalMatters is a nonprofit journalism company that explains how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, see the comments.