The California Legislature missed a couple of opportunities this month to help restore the public’s trust in government.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg’s effort to withhold the salaries of suspended lawmakers will not make it onto the November 2014 ballot.
Steinberg proposed the constitutional amendment in response to criminal allegations against a trio of senators. While it is officially approved for the June 2016 ballot as of this week, the fact that it was not adopted in a timely fashion is a confirmation that left to its own devices, it is difficult (though not impossible) for the State Legislature to police itself.
Another case was the shelving of legislation that would have extended the California Whistleblower Protection Act to legislative employees. The bill wasn’t killed because the idea is pretty popular among voters. Rather it was tucked away into what the Legislature calls a “suspense file,” which means that no one had to vote against it and will likely not be taken up this year.
The state suffers from some of the lowest voter participation rates in the nation, growing apathy and on some issues, an apparent disconnect between the State Capitol and 38 million Californians. How, we asked ourselves, can we further the discussion about creating a more open and accountable government that might help reverse these troubling trends?
And then it happened.
When Senator Leland Yee was indicted in the spring—forever cementing the term “Shrimp Boy” as part of the California political lexicon—it provided a great opportunity to amplify a discussion about trust in government. He was the third sitting State Senator to get in trouble with the law, and we like many Californians, thought “enough is enough”.
We went as far as to issue a “Path Toward Trust”, which is designed to accelerate and focus the state’s response to the misconduct. And to be fair, in addition to the Legislature passing the CAPS act, Prop 42 from this year’s June ballot did indeed enshrine the public’s right to know what their local governments are meeting about, as outlined by the Brown Act, in the state constitution, which was one recommendation in the Path.
But the other recommendations still remain unfinished business, including the extension of whistleblower protection for legislative staff, the modernization of California’s outdated campaign and lobbying disclosure system, also known as Cal-Access; the creation of online filing of economic interest statements (Form 700) and of an independent legislative ethics officer as well as enacting a 72-hour read the bill provision in print and online before the legislature votes.
And just to make sure we weren’t just talking to ourselves about these matters, we asked the 30,000 some odd Californians on our mailing list what they thought of the idea.
In short, they liked them.
Although stopping the paychecks of suspended senators wasn’t part of our platform, it was a question we asked them. To the surprise of no one reading this, 80 percent of those who answered disapproved of suspended state legislators receiving pay.
And 88 percent favored extending whistleblower protection to legislative staff.
Now you might argue, and you’d probably be right, that most of the people who sign up with California Forward would be inclined to support these reforms.
In this case, and on these issues, we are pretty sure that most Californians would agree.
The Legislature can do more to restore the public’s trust in government.
CA Fwd has helped usher in the era of reform in California. Political reforms are encouraging leaders to be more responsive and compromise, while fiscal reforms are contributing to stability, discipline and transparency.
More reforms are needed to ensure California’s democratic institutions are responsive and representative, effective and accountable to the public interest.
Adopting the elements of the Path Toward Trust would be a start.
When your legislator returns to the district this fall, encourage them move forward in re-establishing your trust in government.
Cross-posted at California Forward Reporting.