To their credit, California legislators from both parties in the final hours of their two-year session approved potentially far-reaching measures that could lower the public cost of government pensions, and help employers and injured workers caught up in the workers' compensation system.
To their discredit, they waited until the final hours of the two-year legislative session to act.
The workers' comp bill ran no fewer than 57,640 words. The final amendments weren't public until the Thursday before Friday's close of session. But senators and Assembly members approved it by a combined vote of 106-9.
"I can't take a vote on something I can't explain," Assemblyman Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, said before voting against it.
All 120 legislators could have said the same thing about any one of the hundreds of bills they disposed of in the final week of the session. Deliberation? Not for this bunch. Everyone procrastinates.
But the Legislature has taken the concept of procrastination to irresponsible lengths.
Whenever the houses were meeting, lobbyists clogged the hallways, buttonholing legislators and their aides to make their arguments. When there were breaks, many but not all legislators scurried to watering holes across from the Capitol to raise money from interest groups that were seeking their votes.
The insurance industry had various bills pending. It gave out six-figure donations to key legislators or candidates. The Humane Society sought a ban on a certain kind of hunting, and handed out $1,000 donations, too. So it went.
Legislation that might have helped consumers failed, including Senate Bill 843 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, which could have opened solar energy to renters and others. The bill's numerous backers included the Obama administration's Defense Department, which has ordered the service branches to expand their use of renewable energy. On the battlefield that is the Capitol, PG&E and Southern California Edison reign supreme. Their opposition was enough to kill the bill.
BMW has the keys to Capitol?
Among the many bills approved last week was SB 750, by Sen. Ed Hernandez, a Los Angeles-area Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Health Committee. SB 750 had nothing to do with the infirm. Rather, it affects one company, BMW.
BMW wants an exemption from 2006 legislation sponsored by the auto clubs that takes effect in 2013 and requires car manufacturers to provide "smart key" codes to locksmiths so they could replace lost keys.
Locksmiths could duplicate the keys within one or two hours at a cost of $100 to $400, according to the Legislature's staff analysis. But under SB 750, BMW owners who lose their fancy keys would have to bear the cost of a tow, wait a day for a key and pay $300 to $500.
We shed no tears for Bimmer owners, but the question lingers: Why would a senator, who has limited time in the Legislature, focus on a bill benefiting one company, especially given that the legislator chairs a health committee? There are many possible answers. But one is that legislators dwell on small questions because they are ill equipped to confront the weighty issues that confront California.
Moneyed interests came up with all sorts of incredible concepts, like the one in which plaintiffs' lawyers contemplated joining forces with auto insurance companies, bitter rivals in most situations.
Insurance giants would drop opposition to legislation that, if passed, would have permitted lawyers to get larger settlements in some cases. Lawyers, in trade, would drop opposition to a bill that would permit insurance companies to shave costs by insisting that body shops use after-market parts in repairs something the lawyers' allies in the consumer rights movement long had opposed.
Amazingly, the lawyers got Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg to carry their water. Even with his pull, the improbable deal collapsed. A mere 13 of the 80 Assembly members voted for the lawyers' bill.
Big Tobacco almost got a deal
Speaker John A. Pérez cooked up the most appalling deal. He tried to jam through a $1 billion tax hike on out-of-state businesses to fund college scholarships. To round up votes, the speaker of the Assembly of the great state of California was willing to grant a tax break for three companies, one of which was Altria, the world's largest cigarette maker.
Legislators could not resist directing how to spend $1 billion or more they expect the state to extract from companies that must participate in California's coming cap-and-trade system intended of reducing greenhouse gas.
Few issues are more pressing than climate change. But Pérez's AB 1532 and Sen. Kevin de León's SB 535 appeared to be less about saving the planet and more about enhancing funding for pet projects.
Pérez's bill, nearly 5,000 words long, included a clause inserted on the final day of the session that precludes courts from reviewing California's decision to join with Canadian provinces in its cap-and-trade carbon auction.
As was the situation with many bills approved on the last day of the two-year session, the final amendments and staff analysis weren't posted on the Internet until Saturday, after the session had ended.
California's Legislature is in disrepair. Term limits, demands of fundraising and an overriding desire to remain in office all contribute to the dysfunction. Perhaps a new group of legislators elected in November will begin to change course. But in California, it is becoming harder and harder to be an optimist.