Ben Boychuk: Our frivolous Legislature

California is on the cusp of banning the Confederate battle flag. Because our professional Legislature apparently has nothing better to do.

The story is, Assemblyman Isadore Hall’s mother spotted some Confederate play money for sale at a Capitol gift shop and became upset. The Compton Democrat thought to make his mother feel better with a shoddily crafted bill to outlaw “a person” from selling the Confederate flag “on state-owned or state-operated property.”

But an early Assembly staff analysis pointed out what anyone who’s taken an introductory constitutional law class would know: The state cannot ban viewpoints it finds distasteful or offensive. It’s true: The Constitution protects even symbols that politicians and their relatives dislike.

Hall amended his bill so it would at least exempt history books and nongovernment employees from his broad prohibition. The Assembly passed AB 2444 last week, with only one dissenting vote from Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly. His colleagues must have thought the vote was a no-brainer because they decided not to use their brains. They chose to emote rather than think.

Donnelly justified his “no” vote on First Amendment grounds, which is fine as far as it goes. This isn’t about defending a symbol of “racism, exclusion, oppression, and violence toward many Americans,” or suggesting – contra Hall – that the state should be in “the business of promoting hate toward others.”

No, this is about priorities. Not every problem or uncomfortable emotion requires a government response. Republicans and principled Democrats (if such people still exist) might simply have explained they refuse to expend precious neurons or expand their collective carbon footprint by voting on frivolous, feel-good legislation.

A few weeks ago, legislators overwhelmingly approved another Hall-sponsored bill aimed at eradicating “third-hand smoke” from home day care centers.

Last century, you could sit in a bar or restaurant and breathe other people’s exhaled tobacco smoke. That was “second-hand smoke,” and it was nasty. “Third-hand smoke” is the residual odor of somebody’s cigarette that a child might encounter hours or even days later. Some scientific studies suggest such residue may be bad for you. Twelve states without California’s unfunded pension liabilities, prison overcrowding, illegal immigration and infrastructure problems have already passed similar laws.

A few more Republicans voted “no” this time. But many of them mindlessly went along with Hall’s folly, the argument for which boiled down to: Do you want voters to think you support children getting cancer? Of course not. I imagine they don’t want to see kids struck wantonly by comets, either. But, be serious – what are the odds?

Most of us would very much like children to become proficient in English, however. As the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show, California’s high school seniors actually slipped in reading after a decade of gains. Yet the state Senate’s education committee last week unanimously passed a bill that could make mastering the language arts more daunting in a few years, at least for kids whose first language isn’t English.

The proposal by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, would put a measure on the 2016 ballot to repeal Proposition 227, the landmark 1998 initiative that required English immersion instruction in public schools. Lara claims that Proposition 227 has stymied children’s opportunity to become multilingual. The opposite is true. Proposition 227 remedied a specific injustice: English-language learners were not, in fact, learning English. Instead, they were kept in Spanish-only ghettos.

Lara’s bill is not only frivolous; it’s dangerous.

The Legislature wasn’t always like this. Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson has a bang-up feature in the spring issue of City Journal (where I toil as an editor), chronicling the history of our “lawmakers gone wild.”

Legislators – who worked part time until 1966 – “once worked hard to attract business and encourage development,” Hanson writes. Their generally wise governance fostered a first-class public workforce, great schools and universities, balanced budgets, moderate taxation and “unmatched prosperity.”

But by the 1970s, things started to slip. “The thinking was that wealth was now so assured that Californians needed no longer to create it,” Hanson argues. “Indulgence became more rule than exception.” As social welfare programs expanded and taxes went up, plans to expand the state’s water project were abandoned, world-class freeways became overcrowded hellscapes, energy development petered out, and schools failed.

Ballot-box budgeting and term limits didn’t help. Such “reforms” only empowered professional staffers and lobbyists at the expense of bona fide representative government as lawmakers angled for higher office or cushy sinecures on state boards.

And so today we’re left with the spectacle of a Legislature of a state facing a historic drought after decades of infrastructure neglect spending its days boldly condemning the Confederacy, fretting over far-fetched health threats and working to undo one of the most consequential education reforms of the past 20 years.

These are not serious people – not a one. Yet they presume to tell us how to live. And we presume to keep electing them.