Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California Legislature ignores problems, occupied with trivia

Jockey Rafael Bejarano signs autographs during the last day of racing at Hollywood Park in Inglewood in late 2013, before the track was demolished. Horse racing is a dying business – or sport – with several major tracks having closed their paddocks in recent years.
Jockey Rafael Bejarano signs autographs during the last day of racing at Hollywood Park in Inglewood in late 2013, before the track was demolished. Horse racing is a dying business – or sport – with several major tracks having closed their paddocks in recent years. Los Angeles Times file

One might think – or at least hope –that the men and women who occupy the state Capitol would devote themselves tirelessly to resolving complex issues of a very diverse and difficult-to-govern state.

Poverty, water supply, educational shortcomings, traffic congestion and housing shortages are just a few of those knotty issues that seem to limp along year after year without resolution.

Much of the Legislature’s time and energy, however, is consumed by what most of us would consider picayune matters, and none of its preoccupations is less worthy than two relics of a bygone era – prescribing the minute details of horse racing and liquor sales.

Most Californians would be surprised – and should be angered – to learn that the Legislature reserves to itself the power to dictate which breed of horse can race at which track on which day.

The rationale for that micromanaging, whatever it once may have been, has long since vanished. Horse racing is a dying business – or sport – with several major tracks having closed their paddocks in recent years. For the Legislature to continue its involvement is beyond irrational, yet it does.

Very recently, Gov. Jerry Brown signed an “urgency bill” to allow the California Horse Racing Board to sanction up to six races by Arabian horses a year, joining the other breeds that already enjoy legal status.

“This act is an urgency statute necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety within the meaning of Article IV of the Constitution and shall go into immediate effect,” Assembly Bill 558 declares. “The facts constituting the necessity are:

“In order to ensure that the horse racing industry may continue to offer the highest level of racing possible and promote horse racing in California, it is necessary that this act take effect immediately.”

Really? The public peace, health or safety require Arabian horses to be raced, so that people can wager on the outcomes?

If baseball, football, basketball and soccer leagues can work out their own schedules, why should the Legislature be so minutely involved with horse racing? The answer: Legislators like having horse owners and tracks come to them, hat in hand, and the equine interest groups like to act as if they are still important.

It’s very similar to another power the Legislature enjoys – granting exceptions to the state’s so-called tied-house law that ostensibly separates the liquor industry into three tiers – production, wholesale and retail – and bars cross-ownership.

It’s a relic of the misnamed “fair trade” laws that enforced legal monopolies in the liquor trade, thanks to legendary lobbyist Artie Samish. Most of the laws were voided by the courts as anti-competition, but the tied-house statutes remained on the books.

Whenever someone wants to cross the legal line – a vintner wanting to sell at retail, for example – the Legislature must grant a specific exception to the law, which means a steady supply of such requests, lubricated with campaign contributions.

These antiquated, illogical and corruption-inducing laws should simply be repealed. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

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