Who's Reformed? Not the Legislature While Reform Bills Languish

We expect -- although experience argues against optimism -- that state legislators will be men and women of virtue. Realistically, they won't always be virtuous or even ethical. And so California has a system of laws to check unethical behavior before political corruption becomes endemic.

The system that checks corruption has failed. The quality of malfeasance in Sacramento has passed from reciprocal back scratching and pandering for campaign money to something uglier. The mess today includes bribery, political vendettas, globalized crime, and arms deals.

In recent polls, only 35 percent of voters approve of Sacramento lawmakers; 47 percent disapprove, largely since state Senators Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello), and Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) were caught up in widely publicized criminal investigations. (Wright has already been convicted.)

The investigations continue and may uncover additional criminal behavior, possibly by other members of the legislature.

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Fear was the mood in Sacramento when their Senate colleagues voted to suspend Yee, Calderon, and Wright. Brisk backside covering led to the introduction of more than a dozen reform bills in the following weeks. The rhetoric of reform from the leadership was occasionally soaring in its aspiration to penalize dishonest politicians.

It's now some months later, and systemic reform has very few supporters. Some bills have been passed, but critics see them as "nibbling around the edges, grabbing the low-hanging fruit." New rules in the state Senate limiting contribution seeking don't have an enforcement mechanism. The Assembly is ignoring the whole idea of "blackout days" for going to big money contributors.

Worse, the new leadership rising in the state Senate is unsympathetic to real reform.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, "Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, saw key elements of a wide-ranging proposal to strengthen California's landmark Political Reform Act deleted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, who will replace the termed-out Steinberg as the Senate's leader." (A bill with similar limits on spending never even got out of committee.)

The amendments to Hill's bill "eliminated pieces of his proposal that would have barred lawmakers from taking expensive free trips and prevented indicted lawmakers from using their campaign accounts as legal defense funds."

That last amendment speaks volumes about what the California Legislature has become. When indictments are being unsealed, reform is on every legislator's agenda. Later, the goal is self-protection.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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