Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I could not make this up if I tried.

Yesterday, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) hosted a panel discussion among former and current elected officials in California. The topic was how to improve public confidence in the legislature. The PPIC has found in recent surveys that only 34 percent of Californians approve of the legislature's performance.

Former Senate leader John Burton said that the problem was that politicians don't really get to know each other. As reported in the Sacramento Bee, he told a story about he and another member bonded while eating diner at a lobbyist sponsored event and watching a topless dancer. These opportunities came to an end upon passage of a reform measure that prevented lobbyists from spending more than $10 per month wining and dining legislators.

"You find out your kid plays Little League baseball, you find out that your daughter's in ballet, you find out you have things in common," Burton said. "But then something called Proposition 9 came in and said nobody could buy anybody anything more than $10 per month per person."
Former Governor Pete Wilson said that legislators don't get along well because they are too sober:

"It may have something to do with the fact that when John, Willie and I were all in the Assembly, there was a great deal more drinking in the Legislature,"

Former Assembly Leader Willie Brown said that the problem is with reforms that put an end to backroom deals and made government more open and accountable:

"Unfortunately, much of that is done now where everybody in the world can see," Brown said. "When Randy Collier was the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and I served as the chair of Ways and Means, we had a private arrangement of the conference committee writing the budget. ...

"Some would say reforms set in the early '70s where they started requiring open conference committees, where they started requiring recorded votes, where they started requiring a number of things that inhibits good judgment," he added. "The results were that you now had this clear and present danger out there trying to operate and produce a result where every member is trying his or her best to protect his or her relationship with his or her constituency, and the results were stalemate or gridlock."

Imagine that. Legislators are more concerned about protecting their relationships with their constituents than they are at cutting back room deals with other politicians over a drink and a cigar.

It may be true that one reason for public dissatisfaction with the California legislature (as well as Congress) is that nothing seems to get done other than partisan bickering. It might even be the case that when exposed to the glare of sunshine, legislators are less likely to cut compromises that might sell their constituents short and that this leads to more gridlock.

But the solution to gridlock is not to allow lobbyists to grease the skids for special interest legislation to flow more easily. It is to create an elections process that allows voters to remove legislators who can't get things done, rather than further insulating them.

Former Assemblymember Jim Brulte had a better idea. Wouldn't it improve the legislatures standing with the public if they gave up the self-interested task of drawing their own political districts? That would be one step toward a more functional legislature.

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