Dan Walters

Opinion: Three kinds of Senate ‘oversight’

As the Legislature reconvened in January, the new leader of the state Senate, Kevin de León, declared that he would make “oversight” – examining how governmental agencies and programs are working – a high priority.

De León had abolished a special investigative unit created by his predecessor as president pro tem, Darrell Steinberg, and said he wanted the Senate’s policy committees to do oversight.

“One thing we don’t always do so well is look back, after our bills have been signed into law, to make certain that they are in fact working as intended,” de León told the Sacramento Press Club.

“I’ve asked our committees to look back at the major programs within their jurisdiction and spend the year evaluating their effectiveness and propose improvements, if needed.”

Those efforts, which have involved dozens of committee staff investigations and hearings, fall roughly into three categories.

Some have been significant examinations of issues such as a bitter conflict within the state court system over financing and priorities, a scandal in the Public Utilities Commission, and the state’s chronic inability to buy and implement information technology systems.

To hype the statistics, some routine committee sessions are rebranded as “oversight,” such as Thursday’s annual report on school district finances.

And some of the supposed oversight has been obviously slanted, with hand-picked “witnesses” to parrot preapproved conclusions and tight restrictions on testimony from those who disagree. A hearing into gasoline prices is just one example.

Republican senators have complained about the lack of evenhandedness in some hearings. They also saw an opportunity to score some political points by demanding oversight hearings on Attorney General Kamala Harris’ efforts to seize firearms from felons and others banned from having them.

The Legislature gave Harris, who’s running for the U.S. Senate, some extra money to speed up seizures, and the backlog has gotten smaller, but Republicans say she’s still lagging.

In response, Senate leaders rebranded a routine April 30 subcommittee hearing on the Department of Justice’s 2015-16 budget as oversight of the gun seizure program, but whether that will be a probing inquiry or just a face-saving facade remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, some targets for genuine oversight hearings remain, at least so far, untouched – perhaps because they would be too embarrassing to other high-ranking state officials.

In addition to looking at gun seizure, the Senate should be demanding answers about alleged bias in the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, a judge’s finding that officials of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection lied under oath in a forest fire lawsuit, and a burgeoning sex, alcohol and cheating scandal at the same agency’s training academy.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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