Soft corruption is the norm in California state government

It didn’t take long for newly elected Assemblyman Joe Patterson to learn the facts of life in California’s Democratic Party-dominated Legislature.

Since being sworn in two months ago, the Rocklin Republican has trained his legislative focus on responding to the fentanyl crisis. He’s been forming coalitions and making his case all over the media pitching a simple idea: Saving kids from dying by requiring California’s K-12 schools to keep on hand Narcan, which reverses opioid overdose.

A few days ago, Patterson announced on Twitter that his bill was dead. The idea now belonged to a Democrat.

“It didnt [sic] have to be so early in my #caleg career that one of my bills – where I have appeared all over national news – would be taken. I mean, can we wait for year 2 at least?” Patterson tweeted late last month.

Welcome to the Capitol, assemblyman! Where a Democratic supermajority employs the three P’s: Partisanship, power and pettiness.

The building is guided by a soft corruption that proves the famous Lord Acton quip: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Then-Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (Patterson’s predecessor) got a crash course in hostile amendments — those forced upon you buy the tyranny of the majority.

Last year, as inflation was crushing Californians, Kiley ran a bill that would have suspended the state’s 51-cent-per-gallon gas tax for six months, providing immediate relief at the pump for millions of consumers. But San Jose lawmaker Alex Lee, endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, with the help of fellow Democrats on the committee amended Kiley’s bill to be an actual tax increase.

Don’t get me wrong, this kind of corruption is minor compared to the kind that’s documented on FBI wiretaps (of which there are also plenty of examples). But this is corruption in the sense that the Capitol is rotten.

If you’ve ever wondered why things never improve in California, this is why.

If you feel like the politicians don’t actually represent you, the good news is you’re right and now you know why.

Soft corruption lurks throughout state government.

Consider the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA. It’s widely agreed in Sacramento to be one of the main things blocking housing development, but reforming the law is nearly impossible because two interest groups that routinely abuse it to punish developers — environmentalists and unions — control the Democrats in charge.

While union activists routinely serve as Democratic lawmakers and negotiate with themselves, the quid pro quo is no more obvious than over in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s side of the building.

In 2021, Newsom was pushing for mandatory COVID vaccines for state workers, he hypocritically gave an exemption to the state’s prison guard union, which just happened to donate $1.75 million to his recall defense fund. And that was also after Newsom signed a major new contract for the prison guard union worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

When most of the Democratic establishment was supporting a ballot measure that would have dedicated funding for electric vehicles and wildfire suppression, Newsom stood in opposition because the California Teachers Association — also a massive Newsom donor – stood in opposition because none of the funding went to schools.

And then there’s behested payments, which don’t have the same pesky limits as campaign contributions. In 2020, powerful corporate donors gave $226 million to charities at Newsom’s “behest,” which was an increase of about $214 million from the year before, according to the Los Angeles Times. And over the past three years one of those lucky charities was run by Newsom’s wife, which received $1.6 million, according to my colleague, Susan Shelley.

Or then-Assemblyman Rob Bonta behesting thousands of dollars into the Bonta California Progress Foundation (which he created while in office), which then loaned $25,000 to the non-profit where his wife was CEO, according to Calmatters. This was on top of previous behested payments and even direct contributions from his campaign account.

But that’s ok because he promised none of the money would go to his wife’s salary.

I guess that solves it!

And there’s probably nothing wrong with Bonta’s wife, now an Assemblymember, chairing the budget subcommittee with jurisdiction over the budget of the Attorney General, who is Rob Bonta.

But that’s ok because Speaker Anthony Rendon says Assemblywoman Bonta will remain “independent” and “unbiased” in her oversight of her husband’s department.

What a relief!

But back to how the state legislative process is abused.

Bills Democrats (or better yet, their donors) don’t like are often sent to the murky suspense file, where they can be killed with no vote or explanation. Killing bills behind closed doors saves lawmakers from tough votes, or it allows a vindictive Appropriations Committee chair to exact revenge, or it’s just the most efficient way to kill a bunch of Republican bills, or it can be used as leverage in negotiations. What it does not do is honor the constituents of a district with at least a vote on their district priority.

Misbehaving lawmakers are punished by being stuffed into tiny office spaces or by having their staff budgets slashed. Often, the most rebellious Republican would get put in “the doghouse,” which was a tiny little hovel of an office.

Once upon a time, back in 2008, Democratic Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, got shipped beyond the doghouse into a building across the street, which might as well have been Nevada. Her crime was not voting for the state budget because it shortchanged her district. It was a reminder from then Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (now mayor of Los Angeles) about who she was actually accountable to (hint: not her constituents).

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They do everything they can to pass legislation with as little transparency as possible, like hearings and votes late at night, limited time for public review and stuffing acts of law into labyrinthian budget trailer bills.

They are not shy about changing election rules in the middle of an election, like when they tried to slow down the recall process to save Democratic Sen. Josh Newman (didn’t work) or to speed up the process to save Newsom (sadly, he remains).

I really could go on. These are just only a few examples of the routine abuses of power in the Legislature.

I’m not naive. This is how the powerful stay powerful.

Does this happen in other states dominated by one-party rule? Sure, which only strengthens my point that absolute power corrupts.

And that’s sad for Californians who actually need help from their government.

Follow Matt Fleming on Twitter @FlemingWords

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