No vote, no pay

Sometimes little snippets of news seem fated to collide with one another. In one recent week, attentive news junkies learned that state legislators were due to get a $12,000 raise, taking them to $110,000 a year (plus a $138 per diem and a car allowance when they’re in session). In the same week that story hit, it was widely reported that many of those same legislators had ducked voting on some of the more controversial measures that came before them.

As an abrogation of the job state legislators are paid to do, that kind of behavior is tantamount to a mechanic who never pops the hood but charges premium rates for working on your car nonetheless.

Take, for example, Assembly Bill 1700, a measure that would have prevented lawsuit settlements that conceal information about dangers to public health and safety. The bill failed on a very close vote, and its defeat means business as usual for those who would keep dangerous secrets from the public. By failing to pass it, the Assembly once more showed that it is not serving the interests of the public. By failing to vote on it at all, nearly one-fourth of the members of the California Assembly demonstrated their unwillingness to do the very job their handsome salaries compensate them for.

A.B. 1700 was heavily resisted by powerful high-tech and biotech corporations. Those same corporations are heavy political donors, and a recorded vote that goes against their wishes is certain to get the offending Assembly member booted off the list of recipients of their largesse. A contrary vote also can draw the ire of those companies whose wishes aren’t served, and that can mean sizeable campaign support for a challenger. So, those politicians who cannot screw up the political courage to do the right thing can, in effect, choose to do nothing at all. In this way, they don’t risk alienating the corporations, and they don’t have to defend a vote that directly, and on the record, opposes the best interests of rank-and-file voters.

If all that isn’t bad enough, the San Francisco Chronicle recently exposed the fact that the state Assembly has become fond of expunging votes entirely. This Orwellian practice allows legislators to vote on whether to drop their recorded votes on a given piece of legislation down the memory hole, making it disappear. Although there are strategic political justifications for this practice, it violates the idea of accountability on the part of elected officials, and it seriously compromises the public’s right to know.

Perhaps, as a modest proposal, California could come up with a pay-as-you-go plan for our legislators. They could be paid by the vote. Some 365 bills came before the California Assembly during the recently ended session. If you divide that number into $110,000 (the new salary paid to members of the state Assembly) that comes to $301.36 per bill deliberated upon. No vote, no pay.

The only problem with this idea is that no matter how much voters are willing to pay legislators to do their jobs, the corporations will always be able to pay more to persuade them not to.