Editorials

Lawmakers can prove they support transparency

Former Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and Charles Munger Jr., right, are pushing an initiative to force more transparency in government.
Former Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and Charles Munger Jr., right, are pushing an initiative to force more transparency in government. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Any red-blooded, flag-waving politician would declare that the public has a right to know how government works and that transparency is vital to a functioning democracy.

Here’s how legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown can prove they have nothing to hide: Embrace two proposed initiatives that would shine more light on government, lobbying and campaign spending.

Among his final acts, former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushed through a bill that empowers the Legislature to avert costly ballot fights and flawed initiatives by entering into negotiations with initiative proponents.

Under Steinberg’s bill, lawmakers can suggest additions and deletions to any initiative, maybe even obviating the costly process of going to the ballot. The bill will get its first test with a fat stack of measures aimed for 2016.

There are lots of turkeys in the making. But one of the promising proposals is the California Legislature Transparency Act, a nine-page open government initiative offered by Republican campaign financier Charles T. Munger Jr., and former Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, a Central Coast Republican. It’s controversial in some quarters, but it shouldn’t be.

The initiative would require that all bills be published and publicly available for at least 72 hours before they are voted upon, the better to prevent late-night, end-of-session power plays that leave all but a few insiders in the dark. Though they voice support for the notion, legislators haven’t quite been able to stick to the 72-hour notice. Perhaps the threat of a well-funded initiative will help.

The public expects transparency and assumes that nothing paid for by state tax dollars should be secret. If these measures make it onto the ballot – and the people behind them have sufficient money to make that happen – they almost certainly will pass.

Another provision would require that video and audio recordings be made of all legislative hearings, and be made readily available on Internet.

Some lawmakers will have difficulty swallowing this one. The Assembly has made it a misdemeanor to use the tax-funded videos of its proceedings for political or commercial purposes. They need to get rid of that law and step into the light.

Certainly, there is a risk that videos depicting legislators acting badly at public hearings would find their way into campaign ads. The solution is to not act badly, not to make it a crime to expose legislators’ hijinks.

The Munger-Blakeslee initiative would create a state constitutional amendment. That would require a statewide vote. But there could be middle ground, such as repealing the Assembly video law and engraving in statute the 72-hour rule.

The second measure, the Voters’ Right to Know Act, is funded by Los Gatos software entrepreneur Jim Heerwagen. It was written by Robert Stern, an author of the California Political Reform Act approved by voters in 1974, and Gary Winuk, former head of enforcement for the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

The initiative would ban lobbyists and their clients from giving gifts to legislators, further restrict anonymous campaign spending, upgrade the clunky website on which the state displays campaign finance and lobbying data, and increase funding for the FPPC so it could better enforce the Political Reform Act.

The measure would extend lobbying disclosure requirements to government contracting, a concept contained in 2015 legislation that stalled. There’s no good reason to exclude from lobbying disclosure laws the huge business of landing government contracts. The Heerwagen initiative would change statutes, which legislators could adopt, and create a constitutional amendment, which would require a state vote.

The Heerwagen and Munger-Blakeslee proposals contain provisions that will make some lawmakers squirm. But more than ever, the public expects transparency and assumes that nothing paid for by state tax dollars should be secret. If these measures make it onto the ballot – and the people behind them have sufficient money to make that happen – they almost certainly will pass. Any good politician would be wise to try to improve them, and then wrap themselves up in them like a flag.

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