California State Assembly Speaker bans texting in session

The new California Assembly Speaker has banned text messaging on the assembly floor prompting skepticism from First Amendment advocates that the ban is enforceable or efficacious. -db

March 9, 2010
By Bailey McCann

Last week, when John A. Perez became California’s new Assembly Speaker a point in his opening speech caught our eye — a new rule limiting text messaging on the Assembly floor. The rule will stop text messages from lobbyists from going to lawmakers on the Assembly’s floor or in its committees. The change was announced during the same week as another about texting with lobbyists in the state, but this one is being treated with a bit more skepticism by watchdogs.

CivSource spoke with Peter Scheer, Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition, who is skeptical of the Speaker’s new rule, “it was a stunt to me. If they are serious about restricting texting from lobbyists they should make them public. The ban is not enforceable.” Scheer also noted that there is no restriction before or after a legislator enters or leaves the Assembly and there is nothing stopping legislators from stepping out of the room to text.

According to Scheer, the new rule is just another in a long string of initiatives that claim to increase accountability and transparency but have little substance, if they don’t create an exception for the Assembly outright. “The California Legislature is the least transparent legislative body in the entire state of California.” He pointed to exceptions for the Assembly in several of California’s existing transparency rules including the Brown Act, Public Records Act and Proposition 59. All of which have requirements for bodies including city councils or other state offices.

Calls to the Speaker’s office were not returned at the time of this writing, and it’s unclear whether or not the Assembly plans to take up more substantive rule changes in the future.

Given the size of California and the different sets of disclosure requirements for the Assembly versus city/state offices, how these rules are enacted may have an impact for other states looking for a roadmap. Few states have budgets and services on the scale of California, or as much potential upside for lobbyists.

Scheer argues that upside is the exact reason why so much remains opaque at the Assembly level and why it is so important to increase transparency. In his speech, Speaker Perez indicated plans for public hearings on budget issues as well as live broadcasts of budget hearings and deliberations. However, the net effect either of those initiatives or the texting rule will have to be observed over the course of the Speaker’s tenure.

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