It is fashionable in national circles to make fun of California for its political incompetence and dysfunctional government. The policies adopted by our elected leadership have unquestionably led to California’s dismal rankings in unemployment, business climate, out-migration of productive citizens to other states, wasteful use of public funds, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

While the fallout from bad policies is one thing, naked power grabs are no laughing matter. California, in addition to simply being unable to govern itself through incompetence, is now developing a reputation of becoming a Banana Republic through strong-arm tactics that would make both Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez proud.

Several recent stories reveal California’s backward slide into a political third world. First, there is the vengeful reaction of California’s speaker of the Assembly to fellow democrat Anthony Portantino’s failure to toe the party line by refusing to vote for the state budget as he was told.

In a fit of adolescent pettiness, Speaker John Perez slashed the maverick lawmaker’s staff budget. As cover, Perez claimed that Portantino was spending too much. Portantino objected and called for the speaker to release the office expenditures for each member.

At first, Perez refused, saying the budget for Assembly operations was not public information. But after suits were filed by the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times, and the public began to press for full disclosure, he relented. While the initial figures released by Perez suggested that Portantino was indeed a big spender, independent analysis of staff expenses reveals that Portantino was justified when he said the leadership was “cooking the books” in an effort to embarrass him.

This battle reflects something much worse than a spat between individual lawmakers; it goes to the conduct of an institution that prefers to operate in secret and, when pressed for facts, is willing to put out false information. It is clear to most Californians that the money the Legislature lavishes on itself does not belong to lawmakers, it belongs to California taxpayers who have every right to examine exactly how it is spent.

However, the secrecy surrounding its internal budget is just the tip of the iceberg when judging the shady dealings of California’s legislative branch. In the aftermath of the state budget, lawmakers passed more than a dozen measures without any public hearings. One blocks school districts from firing teaches to respond to a revenue shortfall. Whether state government should bar the layoff of key employees or if this is a decision that should be left to local school districts is worthy of public debate, but lawmakers rammed through this and other bills without public input.

Now, with the current legislative session ending next week, legislative leaders are pursuing a last-minute ploy to change election dates for initiatives to help those they support and hinder those they oppose. If they succeed in moving all initiatives from the June primary election to the November general election, when they expect a bigger turnout of “their” voters, it will be done with a minimum of public scrutiny and debate.

Public policy and spending decisions should not be made as if by witches around a midnight cauldron. The Senate and Assembly are public bodies whose conduct should be open and deliberative. But as we head into the final week of the Legislative session, look for the usual 11th-hour political deals, strong-arm threats and lots of campaign cash changing hands. The casualties from this week will be many and varied and will undoubtedly include both transparency and good government. And this year, with one party holding all the cards, it will be much, much worse than before.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -– California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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