Responding to the scandal that has a pair of Democratic state senators looking at jail time, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed banning legislators from accepting free tickets to ball games and theme parks.
That will show ‘em.
Admittedly, Steinberg and the Democrats have a problem. When Roderick Wright and Ron Calderon’s, ah, legal woes forced them to take well-paid leaves from the state Senate, it not only cost the Democrats their veto-proof majority, it also reinforced the view of many voters who have long been convinced that all politicians are crooks out only to feather their own nests.
That’s not a good thing when Steinberg and his compatriots in the Assembly have plans for ambitious – and pricey – programs like universal preschool, which are going to need plenty of public support.
“The good legislative work we produce is only as strong as the people’s perception and trust in their state Legislature,” Steinberg said in a statement Thursday.
So Steinberg and a couple of other Democratic senators, Ricardo Lara and Kevin de Leon, produced a trio of measures that are being billed as “some of the most significant reforms to ethics laws in 20 years.”
That probably says more about how little has been done over the past two decades than it does about the quality of the new legislation.
The bills ban fundraisers at lobbyists’ homes, tinker with the campaign finance reporting system, bar gifts from lobbyists and cut the annual limit on gifts to legislators from the current $440 to $200.
Here’s a news flash for Steinberg and the Dems: A crooked politician who can be bought for $440 isn’t going to suddenly become an honest man because the price is dropped to $200.
The Laker tickets and concert ducats that legislators regularly list on their gift reports aren’t the problem. Even the thousands of dollars worth of wine, liquor and cigars that lobbyist Kevin Sloat provided for legislative fundraising events at his house is pretty much chump change.
Politically incorrect as it now is, there’s still plenty of truth in former Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh’s old adage: “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and vote against them, you don’t belong here.”
If someone is going to take bribes, as the feds have accused Calderon of doing, it’s not going to be a pair of Giants’ tickets or an expensive bottle of Scotch. And if a politician is honest, he’s not going to change his vote because a lobbyist paid for his lunch.
This isn’t news to a political veteran like Steinberg. He knows that changes in ethical rules aren’t going to have any effect on a lawmaker with no ethics.
In 2005, San Diego Rep. Duke Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting $2.3 million in bribes. Prosecutors even obtained a note handwritten by Cunningham listing exactly how much in bribes it would cost to secure various government contracts.
Think a tighter limit on gifts would have stopped him?
But politics is as much perception as reality. So Steinberg and the Democrats have to do something to show voters that they’re concerned, even if it’s trumpeting bills they know won’t make much of a difference.
That’s not to say nothing can be done. Transparency is more important than contribution limits, since if people know where a legislator’s money is coming from, they can make their own decisions about how important those sources are.
Legislators now file annual Form 700 financial disclosure forms that list their income and net worth in somewhat nebulous terms and ranges, such as “stock in XYZ Corp. worth between $100,001 and $1 million.”
Tighten the forms up. Make all income and investments reportable in exact numbers, including all bank accounts, annuities, mutual funds, personal residences and vacation homes. And put that information online and available to anyone who wants to see it.
Legislators argue that trips paid for by foreign countries, tourism groups and other organizations can be important for the work they do and there’s something to that argument.
But force legislators to list every one of those trips within 90 days of their return and include information about who paid, how much, what was provided and what activities were included, along with who accompanied them on the trip – other legislators, staff, lobbyists, husbands or wives. And all that information should be available on an easily accessible website.
Finally, it shouldn’t be left up to a convicted or indicted legislator – or legislative leaders, for that matter – to decide if and when he should leave office.
The will he or won’t he saga of Wright and Calderon, along with the fully paid leaves they finally received, probably angered voters as much as the crimes they may have committed.
As soon as a felony indictment comes down, a legislator should be placed on unpaid leave. And when someone is convicted, as Wright was, he or she should immediately be removed from office, regardless of any possible appeals.
The only real solution to political corruption is to elect honest men and women to office. The real tragedy of any political scandal isn’t so much what the crooked lawmakers do, but the effect those actions have on the reputations of the legislators who come to Sacramento to do their honest best for the people they represent.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.