Last Wednesday, it was about 8:50 in the morning when I started to walk across the street from my office to the State Capitol. The Assembly Insurance Committee was scheduled to meet at 9 o’clock that morning to deliberate and take action on five bills related to workers’ compensation, disability benefits and annuities. My job was to give Republican legislators serving on the committee advice concerning the merits and potential pitfalls contained in the five bills. As I approached the south side of the Capitol, I noticed that the morning sun had bathed the white Corinthian columns and Roman arches in an almost blinding light. Only a few days ago, construction workers had finished the $16 million repair and re-painting of the south side of the Capitol, which had suffered significant damage when, in January 2001, Mike Bowers, a trucker with a long history of mental illness and convictions for spousal abuse and other crimes, committed suicide by slamming his semi-truck at over 60 miles per hour into the grand old building.

But when I arrived in the hearing room, staff, expert witnesses, and legislators were told by Assembly Calderon, Chairman of the Insurance Committee, that the hearing, upon orders from the Assembly Speaker, was being postponed upon further notice. Why” This was odd. We were told that the delay was due to the fact that a local painters union was picketing on the north side of the Capitol. This was shocking and unprecedented news. It was hard to believe. What could be so important so as to stop the Legislature from performing the public business? Minutes later, nine other committees, including the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which was scheduled to hear over 200 bills, were similarly postponed.

How could a local painters union bring the entire legislative process to a screeching halt? The great “crime” was that the state Department of General Services (DGS) had followed the law and awarded the Capitol building painting contract to the lowest responsible bidder, the River City Painting Company, a firm that employs non-union workers, for a total of $2,45 million. The second lowest bid was for $3.7 million.   DGS agreed to a contract that saves the taxpayers $1.25 million and the result was that deliberative democracy was held hostage.

But was the painters union solely responsible for this blemish on our democratic process? No. Any citizen has a right to peacefully protest the actions of their government. Many do. The real problem was the actions taken by the legislative leadership. They instructed their committee chairmen to maintain their so-called “solidarity” with a particular union and refuse to carry out their constitutional responsibilities. What happened to their “solidarity” with the 32 million residents of California? It apparently slipped their minds that the salaries of these legislators are paid for by the taxpayers. Senator Tom McClintock, soon after hearing that the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee was being delayed, rose in indignation and told his colleagues on the Senate floor that “there is vital principle at stake.” McClintock asked “is this the peoples house or does it now only meet by the leave of a private interest?’

Later in the afternoon, the impasse was temporarily broken when an Assembly budget subcommittee “zeroed-out” the budget of DGS. This action may not only related to the department’s great crime of saving taxpayers $1.25 million for the painting contract but may also be a form of punishment for the actions of several dedicated civil servants at DGS who had the temerity to raise questions as to why the Governor’s office was breaking the procurement rules and fast-tracking a sole-source $95 million contract for Oracle software. The State Auditor would later say that the government paid $41 million too much for software that state employees don’t need.

Finally, at 2:30 in the afternoon, the committee hearings resumed but the legislative process was wounded. Many expert witnesses from all over the state, who had paid their own way to travel to the State Capitol to testify on important bills in the morning, could not stay for the hearings held later in that afternoon and evening. Legislators could have benefited from what they had to say. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, they really don’t care what the public has to say. The sad thing is that the local painters union says that the truce will only last one week. As you read these words, a special interest group and their legislative servants could once again hold our deliberative democracy hostage.

Emerson once wrote “it is the duty of men to judge men only by their actions.” On May 8, 2002, the California Legislature was held hostage for 5 ½ hours by its own leadership. But ultimately, our elected representatives can get away with putting the special interests ahead of the public interest only if we let them. If the voters fail to hold their representatives accountable for their actions, we too will have failed in our constitutional duty.

May 16, 2002