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Shaming California

If the state's legislators want to be held in higher esteem, they will have to re-earn voters' regard.

August 17, 2011|By Dan Schnur

We're not always fair to our politicians. We criticize them for raising taxes or for cutting spending, but then we complain when they refuse to compromise. We get angry when they grovel to special interests, except when those interests are our own. We disparage them for attacking each other, and we ignore them when they don't.

But at the point our political leaders not only treat each other as enemy combatants but begin to regard the rest of us as unnecessary nuisances, our contempt for them becomes entirely deserved.

The recent mud fight in Washington over the federal debt limit led to an agreement that was imperfect, messy and unnecessarily belated. But at least the wrangling was grounded in legitimate ideological differences between the parties. In Sacramento, on the other hand, politicians have twice recently earned our disgust by becoming completely unmoored from their responsibility toward the voters who elected them.

The first case involves Assemblyman Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge, who was the only Democrat to vote against this year's state budget. His party's legislative leaders responded to the vote, Portantino says, by reducing the amount of money available to his office for staff, postage and computers. Democratic leaders say they took action not to punish Portantino but because he was spending more lavishly than his colleagues. But they have refused to provide any documentation of this, and they are fighting a lawsuit brought by media organizations that would compel them to make information about lawmakers' office allowances public.

The only good thing about the squabble is that it has brought necessary public and media attention to the fact that California's elected representatives receive unequal resources to perform their duties, and that the allocations, controlled by a small group of Capitol party bosses, are often based on a system of whims, grudges and rewards. A member who unquestioningly follows marching orders may end up with a larger staff and therefore be better positioned to represent the needs of his district. Another member who is less reliably deferential may be required to serve her constituents with fewer tools at her disposal. The result is unequal representation for Californians in their state government, based on the obedience quotient of the legislator elected in the community they happen to inhabit.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez appointed a task force this week to look into the matter. The speaker's next step should be to publicly pressure the task force members to adopt a policy of immediate disclosure and equitable funding for legislative offices.

The second and more egregious case of betrayal by elected officials in Sacramento involves distressing cuts that are buried deep in the fine print of the budget that interfere with the ability of Californians to participate in the election process. State government has historically mandated that counties process all voter registration applications they receive by mail and send out absentee ballots to all requesters. The state has always provided reimbursement for those costs — until now. With little public discussion, this year's budget eliminates both the mandate and the compensation, forcing county governments to either pay for these services on their own or eliminate them.

Happily, most of the state's counties are finding the resources to keep the programs alive, but the fact that local officials are stepping up does not detract from the ignominy of a Legislature that decided this summer to make it harder rather than easier for constituents to vote.

The annual reimbursement for registering voters by mail cost the state $2.1 million, or a mere 0.002% of the overall $85.9-billion budget. By way of comparison, the Legislature spends $246 million on its own annual expenses each year. The absentee ballot program cost $28 million, still a tiny amount in the overall budget. For a Californian whose work, school or family obligations make it difficult to register or cast a ballot in person, these microscopic savings could represent the difference between a citizen's ability to participate in the democratic process or being deprived of that right.

A Times/USC Dornsife poll taken just after this budget was signed showed that only 25% of the voting public approved of the job their state legislators were doing, while almost two-thirds of respondents agreed that the Legislature should be downgraded to part-time status. with a commensurate reduction in salary.

If politicians want to be regarded more highly, they will have to re-earn voters' regard. Being more forthcoming about how they spend the taxpayers' money inside the Capitol, and working to promote, rather than discourage, voter participation might not be bad places to start.

Dan Schnur is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He is the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and served as an advisor to former California Gov. Pete Wilson and to the 2000 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain.

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