Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Unelected bureaucrats and boards continue to acquire more power

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Last weekend, as the Legislature’s biennial session was grinding to a close, The Sacramento Bee published a commentary by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, invoking the 2,000th anniversary of Roman dictator Caesar Augustus’ death and decrying the expanding powers of unelected bureaucrats and political appointees.

Gatto wrote, “Now it is the executive branch that makes most ‘laws.’ They are called regulations, but they have the effect of law and are just as binding. Yet these bureaucrats were never elected and do not answer to the people. By appointing people to these executive agencies and by telling them what to do, a governor or president can broadly dictate the day-to-day affairs of millions of Americans with almost no outward signs of wielding that power. And if a legislature dares to try to override some regulation, the governor or president can simply veto the bill. This is a serious imbalance of power.”

Well said. And the just-concluded session offered new examples of how powers of unelected bureaucrats and appointees continue to expand.

Take, for example, the California Coastal Commission, which was created 38 years ago, it was said, to protect public access to California’s beaches.

It became a super-agency with authority over any land use in the “coastal zone,” much of which was miles away from the beach, governed by 12 political appointees and occasionally tainted by scandal.

Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, supported the commission’s request for new authority to level civil penalties against those it deemed to be coastal miscreants, but the Assembly rejected her bill.

Atkins, however, later became Assembly speaker, and in June, the powers she sought for the Coastal Commission, albeit modified a bit, were quietly inserted into a budget “trailer bill.”

Another example: Some Democratic legislators complained that the Air Resources Board, whose smog-fighting role had expanded greatly into greenhouse gas emissions, was decreeing a sharp increase in gasoline prices by placing fuel under its cap-and-trade program.

Saying it was a de facto tax that would hurt the poor, they sought a delay, but Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg unilaterally killed their bill without a hearing.

In the closing hours of the session, the Legislature passed complex legislation to regulate groundwater.

The three-bill package gives the State Water Resources Control Board, the Department of Water Resources and local water agencies substantial new powers to monitor and limit pumping from aquifers.

Clearly, California has a groundwater overdraft problem that must be addressed, but farmers worry that their livelihoods will be at the mercy of unelected boards and bureaucrats.

By the way, Gatto, a Los Angeles Democrat, voted for both of the Coastal Commission measures and all three groundwater bills.