The County Voice

The Curious Case of Budget Trailer Bills

You know how a bill becomes a law, you’ve listened to Schoolhouse Rock ad nauseam, but have you ever wondered about budget trailer bills? What they are and why they’re important?

From homelessness to new employee orientations to public safety realignment, budget trailer bills have impacted multiple aspects of county government over the years. 2018 was no exception with Governor Brown signing a total of 40 individual trailer bills, many of which impact counties in one way or another.

In their purest form, trailer bills implement the main budget act by enacting any corresponding changes to state law. However, trailer bill language (referred to as “TBL”) doesn’t always follow that trail of logic. Instead, trailer bills are sometimes used as vessels to sneak past opposition, avoid a 2/3 vote, or even thwart problematic ballot initiatives.

At the beginning of each year, dozens of trailer bills are introduced by the Assembly and Senate Budget Committees. When first introduced, they are empty except for some generic placeholder language. They stay like that for months while closed door negotiations take place between the Legislature, Governor’s staff, and select stakeholders. Once agreement is reached, the Governor’s staff at Department of Finance provides language to drop into the trailer bills and so begins the frenzy of lobbying activity.

In this stage, you may hear two different names describing the same trailer bill language (for instance, SB 855/AB 1821). For each trailer bill, there’s usually both a Senate version and an Assembly version to facilitate more efficient processing. Only one version is ultimately advanced to the Governor’s Desk, but both are commonly referenced.

Not only are trailer bills unique in nomenclature, they also follow a different and more lax set of rules (except for the 72-hour in print rule which all bills – even budget trailer bills – must follow). For instance, trailer bills aren’t beholden to the June 15 Budget Act deadline or the regular budget committee deadlines. They can pop up at any time of year as long as the Legislature is in session.

Also, trailer bills take effect immediately upon the Governor’s signature and typically only require a majority vote. Regular policy bills, however, take effect January 1 of the following year, unless there’s an urgency clause which would trigger a supermajority vote requirement.

A final example is the constitutional “single subject rule” which says that a bill may only embrace one subject. It’s one of the reasons why there are multiple trailer bills instead of one giant “catch all” bill. They are, however, typically warranted a more expansive definition of a “single” subject.  For example, SB 866, one of the “Employment” trailer bills from this year, addressed a wide array of issues from labor relations to census preparations to prison programs. All in the same bill.

As you can see, budget trailer bills are quite unique. They are subject to different parliamentary rules and are certainly not anything you learned about in your high school civics class. However, they stand as a hallmark of California’s lawmaking process in California, sparking curiosity year after year (at least for us policy wonks).


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