You know you've hit rock bottom when you've offended France

Monday, July 9, 2012

Summertime in America brings television re-runs and cinematic comedies.

Give California’s Legislature credit, then, for handing its constituency a dose of both: more of the same bad practices, plus choices that would be funny if they weren’t so misguided.

Having watched Sacramento both up close and at a distance for the better part of two decades now, I’ve come to realize that most legislative action in the Golden State falls into one of the following categories.

They are:

1)  Oblivious to the Obvious. There’s no better example of this than last week’s vote to begin selling $4.5 billion voter-approved bonds to get on with the construction of high-speed rail in the Golden State (the first stretch connecting Madera to Bakersfield, in the Central Valley). The obvious? While California’s high-speed rail venture is long on ambition, it’s woefully short on details – beginning with who’s going to pay for the whole enchilada. A report just released by the non-partisan California Common Sense says the project will cost over $200 billion (nearly triple its cheaper revised construction estimate), creating an annual $6.5 billion obligation beginning in 2028. As for oblivious, that would be the Legislature ignoring shifting public sentiment. Four years, ago, Proposition 1A (a $10 billion bond down-payment on the 800-mile rail project) passed with nearly 53% support. A recent survey showed the same bond would be rejected, by a 2-1 margin. By the way, there are exceptions to the rule of obliviousness, one such example being State Sen. Joe Simitian. He co-authored the bill putting high-speed rail on the ballot. Last week, Simitian was one of two Democrats to break with his party on high-speed rail funding. Here’s one reason why: elected just last month to the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors, Simitian understands that high-speed rail is box-office poison in his Bay Area neck of the woods, where citizens don’t see how the plan is going into effect with seriously disrupting local life.

2)  Never Mind the Small Print. For two consecutive years, California’s passed its budget on time. It’s also done so with lots details to be determined later – this year, future spending cuts determined by the fate of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax ballot measure. The fill-in-the-blank approach also applies to pension reform, which supposedly will be addressed sometime between now and the November election (all the better to put voters in a mood to approve the guv’s initiative). California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg predicts the Legislature’s plan will save $40 billion over 30 years. He’s also assured reporters that whatever it is that Sacramento eventually produces won’t override recent pension-reform votes in San Diego and San Jose. The problem is: no one’s seen the Democrats’ plan – and presumably won’t until negotiations heat up with Gov. Brown later this summer (Brown having unveiled a 12-point reform plan of his own last October). In case you’re wondering where Republican lawmakers are on pension reform, the abridged answer is: cut out. Any GOP chance of influencing the pension-reform debate likely would have included a Faustian bargain on raising taxes – obviously, a deal-killer for Sacramento Republicans.

3)  Better Yet, Pass a Law That Folks Won’t Obey. If you’re Californians, here’s a fun science project: go down to a local thoroughfare and, as the cars creep by, start counting the motorists cradling their cellphones to their ears. In California, that’s a no-no thanks to a state law banning the use of hand-held wireless phones while driving ($20 for the first infraction; $50 after that). The problem is: local enforcement doesn’t have the time, the resources (or, frankly, the stomach) for cracking down on motorists (nor did the ban seem to be reducing the accident rate) – so the law goes, in great parts, ignored or flaunted. This year’s candidate for “sure, whatever”: the state ban on foie gras that just went into effect ($1,000-a-day fine for any gourmand who’s goose is cooked – or force-fed). Like Cuban cigars and Iranian caviar, plans for evasion already are well underway. Already, there’s a legal challenge in the works. Moreover, some wine merchants in southern France (apparently, that nation’s foie gras hub) reportedly are removing California vintages from their shelves. The question is: who has the resources for journeying down every back road in Sonoma and traipsing through every five-star kitchen in Los Angeles and San Francisco to ensure the ban’s being honored?

Such is the art of lawmaking in California in 2012. It defies common sense, good conduct and the public’s will to be coming up with so much legislation that, literally, is for the birds.

Even the French would say: we’re taking the coward’s way out.