Politics: 3/Policy: 0

Election year blues: It’s hard to tell sometimes whether politics is getting more crass or whether Bites is just getting more cynical. Especially during an election year like this one, it seems as if money and political self-interest utterly overwhelm sound public policy.

Looking at just the last week alone—focusing on our old friend Governor Gray Davis—one really gets a sense of just how far politicians are willing to go to save their own butts. They’ll deceive us, push today’s problems onto our children and even pollute our drinking water.

Bites has already ripped the Davis budget as essentially using credit cards to pay today’s bills, so we needn’t rehash that now. But the problem was further illuminated by an audit last week showing how the Davis administration manipulates personnel rules and vacancies to pad the budget in ways that shield accountability and consolidate power.

Throw on the fact that Davis isn’t even willing to talk about any kind of tax increases—such as a small increase in the top income tax bracket, something that even Republican then-Governor Pete Wilson allowed to deal with deficits in the early ’90s—and you have an official policy of denying reality. But the problems extend beyond mere numbers into public health.

Davis announced that he is pushing back the deadline for removing MTBE—a durable polluter of groundwater—from our gasoline. Why? Because he’s worried about news articles predicting steep gas price increases running alongside campaign stories this fall.

To be fair, part of this problem was created by President George Bush playing politics with the issue. Last year he denied allowing California to meet air pollution standards with reformulated fuels instead of an oxygenate like MTBE or ethanol. It was an obvious political gesture considering Bush’s willingness to ignore global warming in favor of increased fossil fuel consumption, so both parties can share the blame for more California drinking water that gives off gasoline fumes.

Drink up, California.

Dubious distinction: If things are crass and callow on the politicians’ part, it’s even worse on the side of special interests that take advantage of our pay-to-play system of government, as a biennial study released this week by Common Cause shows.

Crunching campaign contribution numbers for 1999-2000, the study found California Correctional Peace Officers Association to be the top contributor to legislative campaigns, spending $2.3 million on the leaders who increased prison guard pay by 25 percent and expanded tough-on-crime policies that help California maintain one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

Number two on the list was the California Teachers Association, whose nearly $2 million helped get the 36 bills it supported signed into law and boosted teacher retirement pay by more than $1 billion. Not a bad return on investment, eh?

Others in the top 10 included Pacific Gas & Electric and Edison International, both of which got helping hands from the state during the energy crisis.

Among other disturbing trends in the report was the fact that the largesse of these self-interested donors increased by around 20 percent over previous record-setting years, most of that increase going to Democrats, who control state government and therefore received 70 percent of the donations from the top 10 givers.

Even worse, incumbents got more than challengers by a ratio of 25:1. The California economy may be sluggish, but at least the legalized bribery sector of the economy seems to be going strong.

Point to ponder: The Citizens Flag Alliance last week announced the results of a survey showing 75 percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment allowing laws against desecrating the flag.

Considering what a big deal it is to amend the U.S. Constitution, why would we go through such a process for something as inconsequential as flag burning? If we’re going to amend the Constitution, why not amend it to remove the corrupting influence of money on politics, like setting up a system that funds major candidates equally and regulates outside expenditures and soft money?

If we really want to honor the flag, let’s start living up to the democratic values that it’s supposed to represent.