Inside the Black Box of Appropriations
It is now that time of the year where California’s appropriations committees wield their influence in the legislative process, as the state’s budget begins to come into focus. Appropriations committees have outsize power and can affect the passage of a bill in unexpected ways. Here’s a look behind the scenes.
If a California senator or assemblymember wants to kill a bill, one of the sneakier ways to do so is in the legislative appropriations committees. One member with the ear of the appropriations chair can get a bill put into the committee’s “Suspense File,” possibly never to return.
What’s behind this seemingly undemocratic quirk of California’s legislature, and what can we do about it?
What is the appropriations committee?
In both the California State Senate and Assembly, as legislation moves through the process, any bill that requires money or has any fiscal impact will advance to their respective appropriations committees. The committees must approve any additional costs before the bill goes to a full vote.
How a bill gets killed in appropriations — the Suspense File
Led by the Senate and Assembly appropriations committees, any legislation that meets a certain fiscal threshold will be placed in the Suspense File (cue ominous music). Generally, if the cost of a bill is determined to be $50,000 or more to the General Fund, or $150,000 or more to a special fund, that bill meets the criteria for referral to the Suspense File.
Many bills stay in the Suspense File until the fiscal deadline passes, then disappear from the legislative process entirely. The Suspense File was developed as a mechanism for slowing the process and giving legislators a way to consider all the bills that are going to put significant pressure on the budget.
What really is the Suspense File?
The Suspense File is among the most opaque and secretive practices at the Capitol, and it allows legislative leaders to not only shelve proposals that are too expensive, but also more quietly dispatch those that are controversial or politically inconvenient. It’s well known at the state Capitol that powerful legislators can use the Suspense File as a political tool to keep controversial bills from reaching the Assembly or Senate floor — typically with no explanation, and sometimes without a public vote.
Coming back from the dead: moving bills out of the Suspense File
A bill still has a fighting chance until the Suspense File hearing, when the appropriations committees consider all the bills in the file and decide all at one time which get to move on for debate. Lobbyists, legislators, and constituents play an active and important role in deciding which bills move forward.
How CalBike fights for bills we support, with your help
Like any other civic process, shedding light and making noise can influence the course of a bill in appropriations. When one of CalBike’s bills is in danger of going into the Suspense File, we work behind the scenes to convince key legislators to move it forward. We also ask our members to send emails and make calls to support the bill.
Sometimes that works, and sometimes a good bill dies in appropriations. Knowing how the process works helps us fight for measures that improve biking, equity, and joy. We couldn’t do it without your help.
Which bills can you help get off suspense this year?
Most of our priority bills this year are or will be placed on suspense. Three bills in particular are in jeopardy, given their controversial nature and history. AB 1525, SB 50, and AB 645 are some of the most sensitive bills. If we feel one of our bills is likely to die on suspense, we’ll ask you to take action by emailing or calling your representative or the appropriations chair. Keep an eye out for action alerts and, if you see we’re up against the Suspense File, now you know what that means, and how meaningful your action can be.