Crossposted on CalWatchDog

Sen. Pres pro Tem Darrell Steinberg offered a weak apology Monday for cutting off access to the Capitol cable television program last week, which was recording an important Senate hearing about four of the November ballot initiatives.

The California Channel, the Capitol’s cable access television, recently cut off access to their video archive prior to 2009. In most cases, this is the only video archive of very important legislative hearings.

CalWatchdog has made several inquiries to the California Channel asking for access to older videos, but has not received a response.

State mandated hearing

A legislative hearing is a state legal requirement for all ballot initiatives. Some are saying that an apology from Steinberg is not acceptable, and more drastic legal measures need to be pursued.

“I want to apologize to the press and public,” Steinberg said during an impromptu press conference outside the Senate chambers Monday. “This was a mistake and it won’t happen again.”

The ‘mistake’

The Senate Finance and Governance Committee hearing was about four of the November ballot initiatives: Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s sales and income tax increase; Proposition 31, government accountability act; Proposition 38the Molly Munger initiative to raise taxes for state education; and Proposition 39another tax on out-of-state businesses doing business in California.

These are all budget and taxing initiatives that apparently Democrats want to make sure have every advantage of passage–even if manipulated by party leadership.

The California Channel, the cable television channel that broadcasts all Senate and Assembly floor sessions, and most legislative committee hearings, was apparently interrupted on orders from Steinberg. Last Wednesday, just before the hearing was scheduled to start, a Senate staffer ordered the hearing access to be cut off.

Immediately after the hearing access was cutoff, Steinberg’s media spokesman said they were attempting to prevent the hearing footage from being used in campaign commercials.

Steinberg strongly backs Prop 30, the tax initiative to increase sales tax, and raise income taxes.

However, Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, who was invited to speak at the hearing specifically on Proposition 30, said, “The motive for blocking coverage of hearings on ballot measures that would increase taxes can be more clearly understood in light of the fact that Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is one of those leading the charge for the passage of Proposition 30, a measure that could boost taxes by as much as $65 billion. Steinberg strongly supports.”

Coupal called Steinberg’s interference and cutoff order, “a consequence of one-party rule and another serious offense against the public’s right to know about the conduct of their representatives; one that puts state government on the slippery slope toward censorship.”

Coupal noted, ”Steinberg spokesman, Rhys Williams justified the disruption of CalChannel service this way: ‘It was inappropriate to provide legislative resources to promote the ballot measure campaigns of either side, and in particular to make those public-funded resources easily available for exploitation in political TV commercials.’”

The Sacramento Bee reported on Friday following the hearing that the committee chairwoman, Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, criticized the hearing blackout in a public press statement and several news stories. “The action had embarrassed her because she had begun the hearing with a statement expressing hope that it would help voters reach a reasoned decision on the four measures,” the Bee reported.

But when Steinberg said today, “I pride myself on transparency,”  speaking of his weekly press briefings with local media, it appeared to be nothing more than a weak justification of his decision to cut off the legislative hearing access. Steinberg’s press meetings always come with a set of rules for reporters, and are hardly unfettered access.

“It wasn’t a good reason,” he said about ordering the hearing access to be ended. “When you mess up, you mess up. I’m sorry and it won’t happen again.”

Steinberg’s apology that this was a mistake or a “mess up,” should be challenged.

“In my earlier column regarding the dangers of one party rule, I compared what is happening in California now to the fascist regime in Italy in the 1930s,” Coupal wrote. “The minority party –- and the millions of Californians they represent –- were shut out of the political process entirely.”