There’s only one time I recall California officials significantly reducing regulations on anything. That was in 2012, when legislators voted to let physician assistants, midwives, nurses and plumbers provide “routine” abortions. I’m joking about the plumbers, but abortion clinics — and perhaps craft breweries — are the only areas where legislators favor taking a step back out of our lives, even minimally.
There’s virtually no area of our lives where California legislators won’t insert themselves and tell us — usually in the most excruciating detail — how we must behave. If we don’t do as instructed, the state government has a plethora of enforcement agents at the ready.
You’d think a group so capable of managing society would be a model for probity, I write with a chuckle. Yet over the past few years, the state Capitol has been awash in scandal. Some are garden-variety, but others would be unbelievable if they were in a work of fiction. The “best” one involves ex-Sen. Leland Yee, one of the Capitol’s most ardent champions of gun control, who is now serving a five-year prison term after pleading guilty to a corruption charge. He was accused, among other things, of being involved in a plot to traffic in arms.
The San Francisco Democrat was running for secretary of state when he was caught up “in charges alongside some of the city’s most notorious characters, notable among them Chinatown gangster Raymond ‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow,” wrote the Washington Post. “It was one thing for the public to learn that Chow, a known convict, may have become embroiled in more objectionable schemes. But it was quite another to hear that Yee, a respected public figure… was being accused through the same undercover FBI investigation.”
Yes, it was quite a thing. And it wasn’t the only thing going on in the state Senate. Sen. Rod Wright was found guilty of perjury and seven other felonies related to his place of residence. Unlike with U.S. congressional districts, California legislative seats must be held by people who actually live in the district. Prosecutors said the Los Angeles-area Democrat didn’t really live in down-market Inglewood, but in tony Baldwin Hills. The 62-year-old lawmaker received a 90-day sentence and was banned from public office for life.
This hardly amounts to an arms-trafficking scheme. But legislators should know the rules about their “domicile.” A number of legislators were also open to questions about where they actually live, which made the legislative response embarrassingly self-serving.
Wright was one of the Senate’s most-popular members, so the leadership portrayed the charges against him as a great affront to justice. It was nice to see then-Senate Majority Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, find something that sparked concern about overly oppressive government. (Steinberg now is running for Sacramento mayor. Its current mayor, Kevin Johnson, isn’t seeking re-election following sexual-related allegations.)
Also that year, Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, “surrendered to authorities after being indicted on bribery charges,” as the San Jose Mercury News put it. Calderon pleaded not guilty in a case that awaits trial. Steinberg assured the Mercury News the three men’s alleged actions were aberrations. The Senate voted 28-1 to suspend all three men from the Senate.
The problem, however, was they were suspended with pay. Steinberg refused to hold a vote on whether to expel the three senators. Unlike a suspension, expulsion would be permanent. Legislators said it undermined due process to expel members until their cases were complete. Given the time it takes for criminal cases to wind through the appeals process, this means these legislators could potentially hang on until term limits forced them out.
The one “no” vote was Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon. The San Diego-area lawmaker complained the suspended legislators’ constituents would have no representation in the meantime. It’s a fair point. Instead of stepping up ethics training, Anderson said the Senate should start by removing all members convicted of felonies. He mysteriously found himself removed from a plum committee — a coincidence, according to leadership.
Steinberg also introduced a face-saving statewide initiative that presumably would help the Legislature deal with future bad behavior. Proposition 50, which will appear on the June primary ballot, would assure that when similar instances occur, the Legislature can suspend members and force them to forfeit their pay. Such a suspension would require a two-thirds vote.
It is the “weirdest measure on the ballot” given there’s no one spending any money supporting or opposing it, according to CALmatters. It has a no-brainer populist appeal, which earned it some editorial backing. “What the option of docking pay does is allow lawmakers to remove an element of public outrage when corruption is alleged,” opined the Mercury News. “Lawmakers should have the authority to suspend without pay.”
Unfortunately, though, the measure reminds the public about why we should always look carefully at any of this Legislature’s ethics reforms. Anderson believes nettlesome political foes are more likely to be targeted by the new power, rather than legislators facing legal problems. “The people didn’t put this on the ballot, the Legislature did,” he said. “The Legislature doesn’t have a great record of putting things on the ballot that will hurt them. … Now, (the leadership) can take people like me and suspend (us.) … It’s given them the ability to steal my pay.”
That may seem unduly cynical, but consider what current Senate Majority Leader Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, did this month. Following the above-mentioned scandals and a separate one involving a lobbyist, the Senate instituted a blackout period for fundraising during budget negotiation. De Leon just eliminated that rule, given that it is putting one of his favored senators at a political disadvantage this election season. That senator faces a challenge from a current member of the Assembly, where the blackout rule is not in force.
That’s par for the course. Only the naïve would expect anything different. Meanwhile, other scandals fester. Democratic Assemblyman Roger Hernandez of West Covina, now running for Congress, faces domestic-violence allegations as part of a divorce. He denies the allegations. Even Gov. Jerry Brown was embroiled in a scandal, after the Associated Press reported he “directed state oil and gas regulators to research, map and report back on any mining and oil drilling potential” at his family ranch. In response, the department laughably claimed that service would be available to any Californian.
It’s all the usual shenanigans in Sacramento (and every other capitol, too). I’ve read enough Mencken to expect elected officials to behave this way. But I can’t understand why the public is so willing to let these folks try to run our lives, too.
Rafał Konieczny/Creative Commons
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