Will California Assembly speakership deal make any real difference?

Last week, following a six-hour closed-door meeting of the state Assembly’s dominant Democrats, Speaker Anthony Rendon and Assemblymember Robert Rivas simultaneously issued press releases.

“I’m pleased to retain my colleagues’ support to continue as speaker of the California Assembly and leader of our Democratic caucus,” Rendon declared.

“I am honored that my Democratic colleagues have instilled their trust in me to lead the Assembly,” Rivas said.


Those seemingly contradictory statements reflected a political deal that apparently settled a months-long conflict over who would occupy the Assembly’s top position.

Months earlier, Rivas had declared that he had the votes to oust Rendon but the speaker refused to step aside and a power struggle ensued, each man trying to get as many of his supporters elected as possible.

Ultimately, just two days after the election, a bargain was struck. Rendon, speaker for the last six years, would remain in the position until June 30, 2023, after which Rivas would assume it.

Both were winners, in a sense.

Rendon will be forced out of the Legislature by term limits in 2024 and thus, as a practical matter, would have had to relinquish the speakership sometime next year anyway. He now would leave the office a few months early, but at least would not suffer the ignominy of being forced out.

On the other hand, Rivas will achieve his long-sought goal of becoming speaker with all that entails in terms of power over the internal workings of the California Assembly and their effect on legislation.

Whether the deal or what it brings make any 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 moving from Rendon to Rivas is that the latter represents a rural district in the Salinas Valley, interrupting the tendency of legislative leaders to hail from big cities.

A Rivas speakership would be remarkable only if he did something about the ever-growing tendency of the Legislature to become more secretive in how it handles the public’s business.

Secrecy was the mode of legislative operation for more than a century, but in the 1970s, procedural reform took root. The hitherto opaque process of drafting a state budget was opened up for public and media scrutiny, new laws were passed to shine light on campaign contributions and lobbying activity, and the public was even granted access to the Legislature’s internal spending.

The reformist era lasted for more than three decades, reaching its zenith when voters took away legislators’ power to redraw their own districts after each census and gave it to an independent commission.

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Over the last decade, as Democrats achieved legislative dominance, they clamped down on public access and input.

Legislative hearings on bills have been severely truncated. Pro and con advocates are given only a few minutes to speak and public testimony has been virtually abolished.

Each year, hundreds of bills are shuttled into the “appropriation committees” in both houses and their fates are simply announced with no explanation.

After Democrats persuaded voters to eliminate two-thirds votes for budgets, they began loading up budget “trailer bills” with countless special interest goodies and major changes of policy that bypassed even cursory public input.

Budgets and trailer bills are written completely in secret and the public is given only 72 hours to peruse thousands of pages of dense legislative language before they are passed into law — and only then because a 2016 ballot measure requires the 72-hour notice.

If Rivas really wants to make a difference, he would allow some sunshine into the increasingly dark Capitol.

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 Commentary.

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