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The system we've got

September 03, 2006

EVEN MORE THAN A POLITICIAN speechifying or a lobbyist cajoling, the defining sound of Sacramento may be a gong clanging. It sounds from TV sets at crowded bars, where in another city you might expect to watch a baseball game, and in hotel rooms, where in another town you'd be hearing laugh tracks. "Almemzavote, plizvote." That's Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Leland Yee (D-San Francisco); when the legislative session began months ago, he may have fully enunciated "All members desiring to vote, please vote." But that was many thousands of votes ago, and he can be forgiven if he's a little tired.

All members of the Assembly are tired, as are the senators, along with the lobbyists, reporters and hangers-on who flatter, cover and importune them (not necessarily in that order). But that doesn't mean they don't have much to show for their efforts. As last week's session drew to a close, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democrats who control the Legislature had compiled an impressive list of achievements. They also had a few failures, a few incompletes and a few activities they probably won't be touting on the campaign trail.

Take the scene one day last week in the narrow corridor outside the members' entrance to the Assembly chambers. If the gong is the sound of democracy, this is what it looks like -- and it's not exactly edifying.

Business-suited lobbyists and advocates press and push around a low-slung ottoman, clutching tally sheets that record legislators' promises of an "aye" or "no" on a coming bill, and crane their necks to view TV monitors showing the Assembly in session just a few feet away. Around the doorway to the chambers -- "the gate," they call it -- are more lobbyists, struggling to pass clerks their business cards (with notes, promises or threats inked on the back) and pleading that the messages be delivered to the legislators on the floor. Right now. At one point, a lobbyist wearing spiked heels gives up trying to push herself through the crowd. Instead, she jumps onto the ottoman, narrowly missing Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer. Someone is heard to ask, "Are you going to the fundraiser tonight?" and immediately another question comes to mind: Which one?

A legislator who just voted for the bill giving Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a say in the management of Los Angeles schools tries to reassure school board President Marlene Canter, who opposed the bill. "My heart was with you," the lawmaker says. Small comfort to Canter, who later says, "This isn't what we teach our kids when we teach them how government works." It's hard to say whether the comment is touchingly naive or just naive.

Now, on the Assembly floor, the speaker calls a quick meeting of the Judiciary Committee, and members jam into a side room and quickly reach accord, without notice, without microphones, on several bills that will quickly come up on the floor. Then the Democrats call a caucus and members file out to a private room to discuss bills or trades or swaps or -- who knows? At least they are straightforward about being secretive. There is none of the subtle dishonesty of the open meeting laws that apply to city councils and boards of supervisors, who deny that any agreements are made behind closed doors.

Is this any way to run a democracy? Does Canter have a point? The Legislature has been in session since December and has had plenty of time to propose, debate, amend and approve. But most of the bills are being discussed now, in the final week of the session, at the exact same time political fundraisers are being hosted across town and as candidates prepare for the home stretch of their campaigns.

But policymaking never has been divorced from politics, which never has been divorced from donations, favor seekers or interest groups. There may be a better way to handle the details of lawmaking. But whether the system works for Californians, the politicians and the people who support and lobby them have made this system work for them, so this is the system we've got.

In this election year, when the leaders in the Assembly and Senate have come to a mutually beneficial understanding with the governor, the Legislature produced some noteworthy bills. Some -- such as raising the minimum wage, providing cost relief to some prescription drug users, taking the lead in controlling greenhouse gas emissions and giving the Los Angeles mayor a new role in the schools -- were already worked out with the governor, and he is likely to sign them. Others, like the gaming compacts, were too last-minute and failed.

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