Tuesday, April 5, 2016
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Why Average Citizens Don’t Count in Sacramento
By JON COUPAL
For average Californians, the news out of Sacramento is seldom good.
Finding ways to increase the tax burden, eliminate the taxpayer protections in Proposition 13 and increasing the cost of living seem to be the preoccupation of most members of the Legislature. The majority of bills that are introduced are designed to give special interests an advantage over their competitors and/or taxpayers.
To illustrate how this can work, let’s look at an issue state regulators faced some years ago. The burning public policy question was whether or not dog groomers should be allowed to clean dogs’ teeth. No, seriously. Veterinarians argued that this should be their exclusive purview because they can perform this procedure more “safely.” Dog groomers claimed this was just an attempt by animal doctors to eliminate competition so they could increase the cost to consumers, who, because of higher prices, might be less attentive to their pets’ needs.
Perhaps only the dogs know who was right, but the point is that much of what passes for activity in our state capitol is in the picking between winners and losers, whether it’s insurance companies versus trial lawyers, school choice advocates versus unions, doctors versus chiropractic providers, etc., ad nauseam. More often than not, the winners are not those with the best argument but, instead, are those with the most political clout. And of course having clout includes the ability to provide generous campaign contributions, turn out voters and hire the most persuasive lobbyists. This helps explain why the losers are usually average folks.
Still, there are some regulations over lobbying activity that are designed to give the illusion of fairness. For example, there are limitations on gifts that lawmakers can accept from lobbyists. However, there remains a huge loophole that allows special interests to dominate individual lawmaker’s attention for days at a time. This loophole is free luxury vacations provided to legislators, that are disguised as seminars or conferences.
Every year members of the Legislature are whisked off to exotic locales – Hawaii is a favorite—where they enjoy complimentary luxury lodging and dining, often overlaid by activities like golfing, tennis and snorkeling. In return, the lawmakers are expected to attend brief meetings. Sponsors assure the public that these trips are opportunities for lawmakers to learn more about important issues.
Others call these junkets a form of legalized bribery. They are designed to allow special interest lobbyists to have exclusive call on lawmakers’ attention, against which the officials’ small fry constituents cannot afford to compete.
Enter Assemblywoman Patty Lopez who would ban legislative junkets funded by interest groups. Her Assembly Bill 2840 would prohibit non-profit organizations (set up by lobbying interests) from providing lawmakers with free transportation, lodging and food.
Assemblywoman Lopez summarized the issue by saying “They’re not going to learn anything by golfing with lobbyists in Maui.”
Will Lopez’s colleagues approve her reform legislation intended to reduce the influence of special interest lobbyists by forcing lawmakers to give up junkets? You’d be better off betting on the snowball.
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