Lack of Transparency in Our State Government

T Keith Gurnee
Former councilmember of San Luis Obispo and a member of the Board of Directors of Livable California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the self-determination and the livability of California’s cities and counties.

Former Mayor of Chicago and former Chief of Staff to Pres. Obama, Rahm Emanuel, once said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” By exploiting the chaos presented by the coronavirus crisis, our state legislature is doubling down on that statement.

Legislators are pushing a flurry of wrongheaded housing bills that are targeting established single-family neighborhoods throughout every city and county in California as the new frontier for high density development. The state legislature has authored a series of housing bills that essentially amount to a declaration of war against local government. 

With this legislative session foreshortened by the state’s response to the coronavirus, the hearings on these bills are coming on fast and furious while offering minimal opportunity for the public to weigh in on them, understand what they really mean, and who the winners and losers would be if they become law.

One thing is clear: the sponsors behind this legislation are the real estate development, financial investment, and high-tech lobbies who have a firm grasp on our State Legislature. It’s also clear that many of these bills are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. We don’t have a market-rate housing crisis, we have a housing affordability crisis and these bills are doing too little to address the crux of this issue.

Nonetheless, with restrictions being enforced on public participation during these legislative hearings, the public is prevented from attending the sessions while being limited to making 30 second phone calls during committee hearings on these bills. In the case of the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on June 9, 2020, the staff reports analyzing the potential costs to the state of its new housing legislation weren’t available until two days before the hearing. How can the public, let alone the legislators themselves, begin to read and comprehend the purpose and cost consequences–both intended and unintended–of this legislation? So much for transparency!

Sacramento journalist Dan Walters recently wrote in Cal Matters magazine about the attempts of the state legislature to undo Proposition 54, an initiative written in part by former State Sen. Sam Blakeslee that was enacted by voters in 2016, that required more transparency in how the Legislature goes about its business. Democratic legislators hated Proposition 54, but the voters enacted it over their objection. 

Fast forward to 2020, the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 25 (ACA 25) has been introduced to gut the transparency provisions enacted by Prop 54. Between this push and Gavin Newsom’s executive order issued earlier this year to suspend the Brown Act, who knows what’s going on behind closed doors? Transparency is missing in action, replaced by a legislative process that is becoming utterly opaque.

What is it about some of our state legislators that they are so determined to pass ill-considered housing bills that are designed to force us to live the way they want us to live rather than the way we chose to live? It’s clear testimony that our state legislature has lost its way.

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