But a lawsuit filed last week by MAPLight.org in Berkeley and the
California First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael underscores the degree
to which the California Legislature has been corrupted by arrogance and
allegiance to special interests.
The lawsuit's request is simple and straightforward. It demands that
the legislative counsel follow the law by providing the public with access
to databases it possesses on legislative records, including voting
Those records are available today, but in a limited and cumbersome way.
"It is ridiculous," said Dan Newman, executive director of
MAPLight, which has been pressing the legislative counsel to provide
access to the digital files of voting records, bill texts and other
records. "It takes incredible resources to pry something out of their
There is no mystery about why California politicians might be reluctant
to cooperate with MAPLight. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group has set up an
easy-to-navigate way for voters to track the connection between
contributions and votes in Congress. It hopes to do the same in the state
I have no doubt the group would find rich terrain in Sacramento. As
readers of our editorial pages over the years know, one of my pet peeves
is the tendency of legislators to fail to vote - a practice known as
"laying off" or "taking a walk" - on particularly
controversial consumer and environmental issues. Time after time, I have
found a direct correlation between nonvoting legislators and the flow of
special-interest contributions. In one particularly notorious example from
2003, legislators on a key Assembly committee were serving desserts to
lobbyists at a private-home fundraiser (advertised as a "Night of
Chocolate Decadence") just before a bill to re-regulate energy came
up for a vote. The bill died when 11 of the 14 committee members failed to
As someone who has tried to track voting records, I know that the
current site (www.leginfo.com)
is woefully incomplete - to the point of being misleading - on roll-call
votes. Under the Assembly rules, members who missed a vote are allowed to
"add on" after the outcome has been decided. And they do - I've
caught them, and named names, over the years. Even more outrageously,
hours after a measure's defeat or passage, a member can change his or her
vote from "yes" to "no" - and vice versa - as long as
it does not change the outcome. Again, this is not a theoretical
possibility. I've seen it happen - and reported on it.
Such vote-switching is not easy to document now. The leginfo.com site
only includes the final (sanitized) roll call. I've been able to find them
only when a legislator or aide - typically one who is outraged by the
shenanigans over a bill he or she has been working on - provides me with a
printout of the legislative record at the moment the roll call closed, and
a bill is passed or defeated. It is subject to change before the public
can view it.
"That is just scandalous and infuriating," Newman said of the
voting-changing. "It just shows the value of transparency."
As much as I'm cheering on this lawsuit, which was filed in Sacramento
County Superior Court last week, I hope the result will be online access
to the full history of
voting records. I believe that Californians should know which legislators
are not doing their jobs - not voting on important bills. And I believe an
elected official's constituents should know whether he or she voted when a
measure was still in doubt or "added on" - or even changed a
vote - after the fact.
This lawsuit is against the legislative counsel, but the real culprit
here is the California Legislature, which could fix this problem in a
Sacramento minute if only it had the will. Public-records law seems to
make clear that records should be available in their electronic format. If
legislators have any question about the clarity of the law, they have the
ability to change it.
On Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento,
suggested that a resolution may be coming soon.
"When there is no additional burden on government to turn over the
information in a user-friendly format, we ought to be stretching and going
out of our way to do that," Steinberg said by phone.
This lawsuit needs to be settled. Fast. Its mere existence is a blight
on the California Legislature.
The games they play in Sacramento
THEY MISS VOTES: Over
the years, The Chronicle editorial page has documented many cases in
which consumer and environmental bills have died when a potentially
decisive number of members fail to vote - knowing that "taking a
walk" has the same effect as a "no" vote.
THEY "ADD ON" VOTES: Yes,
a legislator who failed to vote while the issue is in doubt can
"add on" a yes or no vote after a bill is passed or defeated -
as long as it does not change the outcome. The legislative record
currently available to the public (www.leginfo.com)
does not reveal which votes are add- ons.
THEY CHANGE THEIR VOTES: Believe
it or not, legislators are allowed to change their votes from yes to no
- and vice versa - for several hours after a
bill is passed or defeated. And they do, without leaving footprints on
the record available to the public. Over the years, The Chronicle
editorial page has documented numerous cases of vote switching.
THEY ERASE THE RECORD: On
June 4, 2003, the Assembly rejected AB406, a bill to strengthen public
oversight of environmental impact studies, with a large bloc of members
failing to vote. Immediately after the vote, the author requested that
the record be expunged, as if the vote was never taken - and not a
single legislator objected.
THEY VOTE FOR EACH OTHER: In
June, The Chronicle exposed a common practice in the Assembly of members
voting for each other with their electronic machines. Such "ghost
voting" is prohibited by Assembly rules - but those rules were
widely ignored until violations were detailed in the June 8 Insight
cover story, "Capitol chaos." Two days later, Speaker Karen
Bass ordered members to start taking their voting keys with them when
they leave the chamber.
article appeared on page G
- 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle