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Unsavory lawmaking in the California Assembly

The chamber wipes some votes from the public record. That should leave a bad taste in voters' mouths.

August 07, 2009

You're familiar with the expression: "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made." So maybe it was with that in mind that the state Assembly last month purged the official record to prevent anyone from knowing how lawmakers voted on a plan to allow new oil drilling off the Santa Barbara coast. See, they were doing us a favor. The sausage makers wanted to protect us from their gruesome work.

Thanks so much, Mr. and Ms. Assembly Member, but no thanks. Because despite what Otto von Bismarck or John Godfrey Saxe (or whoever; the record is spotty) said, citizens of a democracy elect their lawmakers and want to be able to see all the fat, filler, special favors and political cowardice that go into their laws.

Californians are already acquainted with the ugliness of Sacramento legislating -- the bills that are gutted in the session's final hours, then stuffed with language unseen by the public; the important policy proposals that go through months of public hearings, only to be completely rewritten in closed-door "Big Five" budget sessions; the wining and dining and special favors doled out by lobbyists, and the thank-you notes written in the form of legislation by members of the Assembly and the state Senate.

But at least most of that gore can be tracked. That may not be true of the July 24 vote on oil drilling, which was nearly expunged from history, as reported Thursday by Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy. The story noted that 28 members of the Assembly voted to approve drilling, but when the measure failed, all record of the action was deleted. That way, drilling proponents can be everything to everyone: They could vote "yes" and please the oil interests that spend money in reelection campaigns, but avoid accountability to their more environmentally oriented constituents. In the last six years, McGreevy reported, failed Assembly bills and the votes for and against them have been deleted from the public record 71 separate times.

Assembly members sometimes complain, privately, that their constituents just don't understand how difficult it is to make laws and balance a budget. But making the very public process of lawmaking into a secret ritual doesn't help matters. On the contrary, it makes Californians feel like they are part of the stuff being fed into the meat grinder.

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