Soapbox

Prop. 50 is a step forward to make Legislature more responsive

Then-state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduces a resolution in March 2014 to suspend with pay three senators facing criminal charges. Proposition 50 on the June primary ballot would amend the state constitution to allow legislators to suspend their peers without pay.
Then-state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduces a resolution in March 2014 to suspend with pay three senators facing criminal charges. Proposition 50 on the June primary ballot would amend the state constitution to allow legislators to suspend their peers without pay. Associated Press file

When state Sen. Leland Yee was arrested in 2014 on charges of racketeering and gun trafficking, many Californians were outraged. At the time, Yee was campaigning for California secretary of state on a transparency platform.

Yee was one of three state senators that winter charged with criminal offenses, along with Ron Calderon and Rod Wright. The Senate has explicit constitutional authority to expel members. But the leadership, while disappointed with its colleagues, also wanted to respect the rights of due process – that they were innocent until proven guilty.

So instead, the Senate used implied authority to suspend the three. But another provision prevented the Senate from suspending their $95,000 annual salaries. The public took notice: indicted senators sitting home and collecting salaries. That prompted lawmakers to pass with overwhelming and bipartisan support the proposed constitutional amendment on the June 7 ballot.

Proposition 50 would give clear authority to the Assembly and the Senate to suspend a member without pay. They would be required to declare why the legislator is being suspended. To guard against political misuse, it would require a two-thirds vote, the same threshold in the constitution for expelling members.

This authority would not be unique to California. The National Conference of State Legislatures says the power to discipline and expel members is a staple of American democracy.

The circumstances in 2014 were unprecedented; in previous instances, members had enough respect for the institution to resign. With explicit authority to suspend members without pay, lawmakers could protect the integrity of the Legislature and minimize erosion of public confidence in their government.

In recent years, Californians have supported political reforms that have reduced bipartisan gridlock and increased lawmakers’ ability and incentives to represent their entire districts and work across the aisle to solve problems.

But this evolution is not complete. In the winter of 2014, California Forward identified some right next steps. They include modernizing California’s outdated campaign and lobbying disclosure system, which is moving forward with Senate Bill 1349; creating online searchable access to economic interest statements, which is progressing under the Fair Political Practices Commission; giving whistleblower protection to legislative staffers, which is proposed in AB 1788; and requiring all bills be public for 72 hours before a final vote. The Legislative Transparency Act is on track to qualify for the November ballot.

Proposition 50 is not a giant leap, but another in a series of reforms that over time will make the Legislature more representative, more responsive and more trustworthy.

Jim Mayer is president and CEO of California Forward and an author of the ballot argument in favor of Proposition 50. He can be contacted at jim@cafwd.org.

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