State lawmakers - play by the rules

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Karen Bass, sworn in as Assembly speaker less than a month ago, is facing her first big test of leadership. The events of those ignoble three days in May - when the Assembly scrambled to meet a deadline to pass bills it originated - represented an affront to representative democracy.

In one documented case, a member of the leadership team, Assemblyman Kevin de León of Los Angeles, hit the voting switch of a fellow Democrat, Mary Hayashi of Castro Valley, while she was elsewhere in the Capitol. That would have violated Assembly rules even if she had agreed with the vote. She did not.

Is this the way the Democrats will operate in the Bass era? On Thursday, she pledged to address the issue in a closed-door caucus with the Assembly Democrats.

"I'm going to talk to people ... because we don't want to have it happen again, ever," said Bass, D-Baldwin Vista, Los Angeles County.

The problem with the California Legislature goes well beyond one or two overzealous lieutenants. It is about a culture that leads lawmakers to think they are above the rules they create.

Step one would be to enforce those rules, starting with Assembly Rule 104: "A member may not operate the voting switch of any other member."

It was remarkable to learn that at least three members of Bass' leadership team - Alberto Torrico of Fremont, Fiona Ma of San Francisco and Kevin de León of Los Angeles - did not seem aware of the strict wording of Rule 104.

Those three days in May also provide compelling evidence of what else needs to be fixed in Sacramento. Let's start with these five:

-- Too many bills. The Assembly took up 316 bills in the three days leading to the deadline to pass them out of the house of origin. This is absurd. No wonder legislators were deferring to lobbyists, or leaving their voting keys for other members to figure out what to do.

Both houses need to curtail the number of bills each member can introduce.

-- Money talks way too much. Sure, many Californians are skeptical about public financing of elections, such as Berkeley Assemblywoman Loni Hancock's plan for a "clean money" system. But the actions in the Capitol make clear that we're paying dearly for the status quo in the inability to pass legislation in the public interest.

-- Reinventions of reality. The rule that allows members to change their vote after the outcome is decided - thus, covering their hides for the next campaign - is outrageous. The official legislative record should accurately reflect what happened.

-- No "ghost voting." This doesn't happen in the 40-member Senate, where they vote the old-fashioned way, with their voices. That may be impractical in the 80-member Assembly, but the rules should reflect reality. If members want to allow desk mates with specific instructions to vote for each other, then put it in the rules. And enforce those rules.

-- Create a culture of accountability. So many nonvoting legislators, especially in the Assembly, suggest that they "lay off" a bill - or "take a walk" - because they don't want to offend the author. We don't buy it.

Those "walks" allow legislators to have it both ways: They satisfy the special interests by helping defeat a bill, while avoiding a vote that would be difficult to explain to voters. This is not acceptable. Develop thicker skins. Do your jobs.

A 1986 decision by the California Supreme Court severely curtailed the ability of outsiders, including the electorate, to intrude on the Legislature's prerogatives. In striking down Proposition 24, a 1984 legislative reform plan that won with a 53 percent majority, the justices effectively declared that lawmakers have the right to set their own rules.

If legislators are going to make laws for the rest of us, they need to forge clear rules for themselves - then follow and enforce them.

This article appeared on page G - 10 of the San Francisco Chronicle