For more transparency, vote for Prop. 54

We’ve been writing about the need for greater transparency in government, and the necessity to kill the practice known as gut-and-amend, for almost as long as Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen has been talking about it. When it became clear that the proponents of the state’s latest transparency initiative had gathered enough signatures to get it onto the ballot, we cheered.

Now, we’re writing to endorse Proposition 54, urging voters not to be fooled by opponents who say it will hamstring the legislative process or that our elected representatives could pass more effective legislation.

The only thing Proposition 54 will hamstring is the wheeling-and-dealing we don’t like. And our elected representatives had plenty of opportunities to pass similar legislation, but whiffed each time. Olsen introduced transparency legislation virtually every year she was in the Assembly, and it got nowhere.

Proposition 54 will shine a light on governance, requiring every piece of legislation be published and posted online at least 72 hours before a vote can be taken. Instead of having dozens of bills shoveled through the legislature at the last minute, often unread by those who must vote on them, there will be time for everyone to see what is being voted on. No more legislating from the shadows.

Under Proposition 54, only a declaration of a state emergency from the governor – say to enable emergency legislation to fund catastrophe relief for earthquakes or fighting fires – could create an exemption. And only for legislation relevant to that specific emergency.

The initiative also would require the Legislature to record all its public meetings, post the videos online within 24 hours and leave them there for at least 20 years. Gone would be the ban on recording legislative meetings with a smartphone and then using the audio or video clips for other purposes. In other words, you can start taking photos from the gallery.

Proposition 54 is backed by the California Republican Party and good-government and business groups. They insist big changes will result from it. Opponents, including the California Democratic Party and California Labor Federation, argue that the initiative would hand special-interest groups more power and make it harder for lawmakers to get deals done.

We have another reason to be for this measure. Modesto is the hometown of Ralph Brown, who first helped make California governance more transparent.

Ultimately, we doubt Proposition 54 will be earth-shattering. It seems dramatic, but is actually a modest attempt at increasing transparency. Special interests still will have their say and wield influence whether or not the initiative is enacted. Backroom deals still will happen. But with Propostion 54, we’ll have more time to learn the details.

Like most initiatives, it isn’t perfect. Video shot by citizens with an ax to grind almost certainly will be chopped up and reconstituted into political attack ads.

The initiative is being funded by Charles Munger Jr., the ultra-conservative Republican activist and physicist who funded Proposition 11 in 2008 and Proposition 20, which in 2010 established the independent redistricting commission to draw legislative and congressional boundaries.

Voters generally should be wary of initiatives bankrolled by a single person. But it’s hard to see how the current legislative process – in which bills are rushed through in hours – could be made worse by Proposition 54.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates it will cost about $1 million a year to record and archive legislative meetings – a small price to pay for transparency.