When California’s voters approved a 2010 ballot measure to reduce the legislative vote requirement for the state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority, they believed that they were merely ending an annual political logjam that sometimes stretched out for months.

Unwittingly, however, they were granting the Legislature’s majority Democrats a license to make mischief.

The lower vote requirement applied not only to the budget itself but also to numerous “trailer bills” that supposedly implement the budget’s finances. Very quickly, therefore, trailer bills became vehicles for enacting major changes in state law with little or no connection to the budget and without committee hearings and other forms of public exposure.

The flagrant misuse of these bills for other purposes, and the similar practice of hastily and secretly writing major legislation in the final hours of legislative sessions, finally led to a 2016 ballot measure requiring bills to be in print for 72 hours before final votes.

Senate Bill 858, passed in 2014, was one of those infinitely complex, multi-point legislative monstrosities deemed to be budget trailer bills.

No. 27 of SB 858’s many provisions imposed limits on school district reserves if voters passed a pending ballot measure sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown’s measure, Proposition 2, created a “rainy day fund” that would cushion the state against the effects of an economic downturn, and the local school reserve cap would be triggered if the state shifted any money, even $1, into another reserve fund for education.

On its face, therefore, it was irrational policy. It would potentially limit the ability of school districts to protect themselves from the same adverse impacts that Proposition 2 sought to mitigate at the state level.

It soon became evident why Brown wanted the measure. He was concerned that the powerful California Teachers Association would oppose Proposition 2 because the measure could potentially limit state funds available for salary increases. SB 858’s school reserve language placated the CTA by potentially making more money available for salaries.

Proposition 2 passed, and the reserve-limit language became law. Authorities said the limits were unlikely to be triggered, and they haven’t been yet. Moreover, with accounting modifications, school districts can pretty much avoid the limits even if they are triggered.

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However, it still grates on local school officials that limits were arbitrarily imposed, and they’ve been trying ever since to repeal them.

SB 858’s provision No. 27 should be repealed. But that would require Brown and legislators to admit that it was just an exercise in political expediency and shouldn’t have been enacted in the first place.

Politicians don’t admit to such errors, so in time-dishonored fashion they have been nibbling on the underlying issue, trying to defy the old Capitol axiom that you can’t fix a bad bill.

The latest attempt is Senate Bill 751, which passed both legislative houses without dissent and is now awaiting Brown’s signature or veto. It would raise the supposed reserve cap and exempt some small districts, and thus reduce its overall potential effect.

However, the cap still remains in law, and it still forces school districts to use accounting gimmicks to shield themselves from it, thus making it more difficult for parents and taxpayers to understand their local school district finances.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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