Keeping Californians in suspense

150 150 Courtney M. Fowler

Consider for a moment the traits a good “suspense” film has: an exciting plot, great acting and unexpected twists that leave the audience reeling. One process that California’s legislators use to approve government bills has a shockingly similar list of attributes.

On Friday, May 23, the Appropriations Committee in both the state Senate and Assembly held a hearing to determine which of 551 recently proposed bills would be released from what is referred to as the “suspense file” (no joke). 

Landing on the “suspense file” essentially means that any bill with an annual cost upwards of $150,000 (in most cases) to enact can be held in committee without a vote. Like a captive audience, bill authors sat nervously on edge at the State Capitol waiting to see if their proposals would survive or die a quiet death.

When I began to research why bills were placed in this special reserve one of the first things I learned was “the suspense file is where good bills go to die.” I was told that this dramatically opaque process continues to live on because it’s a way for a popular bill to die without anyone’s name being attached to the death. 

Like viewers after the screen went black and Journey started playing in the finale of The Sopranos, or those waiting to see if the spinning top at the end of Inception ever falls, those bill’s authors will never quite know what happened.

There’s a legitimate reason why a bill might be placed in suspense, however. The fiscal committee in both houses uses the suspense file as a legislative holding cell for bills with a significant fiscal impact so they can be evaluated once they have a better sense of available revenue. 

Waiting to see which bills the state can afford is perfectly logical, but the problem is that the process is also political. The deliberations  happen behind closed doors. Freed bills go to the floor for a public vote. The others aren’t so lucky.

Like a dispensable, nameless cast member locked away in the deep recesses of the villain’s creepy basement, these detained bills might never be seen again. They aren’t granted a public hearing or vote and there is no testimony from any witnesses in favor of the bill’s survival. Party leadership can simply lock them up and throw away the key.

Details for which bills are placed on suspense also proved a little more obscure than a high price tag. In addition to minimal fiscal burden, bills must also be “non-controversial” (although there is no further specifics about what that means). Such arbitrary standards leave many bills’ fate at the mercy of the committee’s political composition. 

When the suspense file bills are recalled for voting, the committee chair quickly goes through potentially hundreds of bills on the file in rapid fashion at a pace of 8 to10 bills per minutes. They are listed as “from Suspense File – for vote only.”  

During this year’s hearing, the room was filled with tense legislators who were crushed if the fiscal committees left their bill on hold. It’s the procedural equivalent of suspended animation, frozen in carbonite like Han Solo with no Luke or Leia to come to the rescue. It’s not always so dramatic, though. Some legislators understand that they weren’t a victim of the Galactic Empire; their bill was just too expensive or not a priority at the moment.

California Forward Action Fund supported several bills that were facing suspense file limbo. Of them, the only loss was AB 2176, which calls for the governor to serve as the lead entity in economic strategy throughout the state. The rest of the important reforms our 501c4 were not given the George Clooney treatment and sent into deep space as Sandra Bullock watched on, so at least for this organization’s participation in the drama of the suspense file, the body count was (thankfully) low.


Courtney M. Fowler

All stories by: Courtney M. Fowler