Dan Walters: The legislative process does count

dwalters@sacbee.comSeptember 2, 2012 

A 170-page overhaul of California's multi- billion-dollar workers' compensation system – hammered out during months of secret negotiations between business and labor union lobbyists – was dumped on the desks of 80 Assembly members late Friday after being whisked through two perfunctory committee hearings.

It would, if enacted, affect the lives of countless thousands of workers who sustain job-related injuries and illnesses, but just how was a matter of great dispute.

The proponents said it would raise cash benefits by as much as 30 percent to those with permanent disabilities and speed medical treatment, but to pay for the expanded benefits, eligibility would be tightened. Lawyers who specialize in such cases and some medical care providers were opposing it.

Legislative leaders of both parties were exhorting their members to back the overhaul. But it was too much for one San Diego County Democrat.

"I can't vote for something I can't explain," Ben Hueso told his colleagues, who were looking forward to a midnight adjournment after a hectic last week of the 2012 session. "Let's conduct ourselves with more honor and more dignity. Let's involve our community in our decisions."

The plea fell pretty much on deaf ears. Hueso and two other Democrats voted against Senate Bill 863, along with two Republicans, and three other Democrats refused to vote. But the bill garnered 72 of the Assembly's 80 votes and zipped through the Senate by a similarly lopsided 34-4 vote to land on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk for a certain signature.

So is SB 863 good public policy or not?

One can't really answer that question, and the same ambiguity envelops almost everything else that was done, and left undone, in the final days of the session.

SB 863 was one of countless measures that popped up during those days, entirely new bills that were hustled through the process with little or no detailed knowledge of what they really do, or whose interests they serve.

Up until minutes before adjournment, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Brown were trying to rewrite a Pérez bill changing taxation of multistate corporations.

They created a Christmas tree loaded with ornaments to attract the votes of particular senators. But it finally collapsed of its own ponderous weight.

Mention "process" to Capitol politicians and staffers and you often get a roll of the eyes. But process counts because it affects the legitimacy of the policy product and the credibility of those involved in it.

Dumping 170-page bills on legislators' desks and demanding immediate votes stigmatizes what they do and feeds Californians' growing sense of alienation from politics and their cynicism about politicians.

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