The silly season

The harebrained content of bad bills proposed by legislators is progressing from dumb to dumber

One thing we can be fairly certain of, when assessing our Legislature and its 27-percent approval rating, is that Sacramento politicians keep busy on issues of staggering unimportance while key issues get short shrift.

Legislators don’t like to admit that they are awash in frivolous issues designed solely to please special-interest groups that give them money. But how else to explain the raft of absurdities approved by legislators each year and sent to the governor to sign?

Last year, so many awful laws were passed that I had to publish two columns on the topic. Most media, hewing to their view that it’s not fair to embarrass the California Legislature in this way, gave insufficient ink to these stinker laws.

But looking at the piles of bad bills now sitting on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk is a great way to observe our government’s dysfunction, written in black and white. We can only hope that Arnold, unlike the frightened Gray Davis before him, vetoes these dogs.

In 2003, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco and Senator Denise Ducheny of San Diego sponsored Senate Bill 18, a law so bad it made the national news. SB 18 would have given the obscure Native American Heritage Commission the power to oppose development on any private land in California if a tribe felt it interfered with a sacred site anywhere else in the area.

This bill blatantly placed one group’s religious views above the public good. It would have further crimped housing construction in a housing-starved state that already has more construction obstacles than almost anywhere. And the whole state would have been under the thumb of an obscure commission, because California is peppered with old American Indian sites. The bill died after Davis let it be known he didn’t like it. In August, persistent legislators sent an amended but still awful version of it to Schwarzenegger.

Yet, too often, Davis buckled on ridiculous bills in 2003. The Legislature approved the illegal-immigrant driver’s-license bill; Davis signed it to placate the left. At the time, I noted that “Sacramento still doesn’t grasp what is happening in the world beyond the Capitol dome, where a populist storm is fomenting.”

The widely unpopular license law ignited even more voters against Davis. After Schwarzenegger was elected, he persuaded the Legislature to repeal it.

Bad bills are hardly peculiar to Democrats. If Republicans were the ruling party, they’d be just as foolish. But the Democrats have controlled the California Legislature for decades, with a quick blip in the 1990s when the Assembly was split 50-50. So, for a very long time, the vast majority of California laws have been authored by Democrats.

On one hand, this is good. Silly laws by Republicans never make it to the governor’s desk because ruling Democrats kill them. On the other hand, it’s bad. The Democrats invariably also kill most of the good laws by the Republicans.

In any case, as a result of all this partisanship, only silly Democratic laws make it to the governor’s desk. For this reason, the Democrats lay themselves open to attacks for their dumbest laws—and those laws are legion.

Look at the latest doozy from one of California’s most consistently silly Democrats, Assemblyman Paul Koretz of West Hollywood. Last year, Koretz worked very hard but failed to pass a law banning the declawing of exotic cats amid the worst budget crisis in state history.

Koretz’s renewed effort this year, Assembly Bill 1857, again tries to make it a crime to declaw exotic cats. Apparently, here in the urban wilds of California, it’s terribly wrong to declaw lions and tigers in order to protect mere humans. As one appalled state legislative staffer asked me, “Have we learned nothing from Siegfried & Roy?”

Then there’s San Rafael Assemblyman Joe Nation’s proposed law, AB 2193, making it a crime to let anyone under age 14 use a tanning salon. (Right now, the under-14 crowd can go to tanning salons with a parent or guardian without committing a crime. Clearly, these people must be stopped.)

I find it fascinating that the Legislature is worried about teenagers’ skin health. This Legislature has not even tried in recent years to make a dent in the alarming middle-school and high-school dropout rates in California or to address rampant teenage illiteracy in the big cities—actual, tragic teen crises.

The Legislature also sent Arnold the “Racial Mascots Act,” AB 858, banning in most circumstances the use of “Redskin” as a public-school team name. As in similar past efforts, the legislators listen solely to select American Indians while utterly ignoring other American Indians who say that names such as “Braves,” “Chiefs” and “Redskins” honor American Indians’ courage and tenacity and keep history alive.

But the Redskin ban is not really about respecting American Indians. It’s about relieving the guilt of various members of the state Legislature.

Food stamps for drug felons, AB 1796 from Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco, is another bad idea driven by the legislators’ psychological need to feel good about themselves.

This law lets drug felons have food stamps if they’re off drugs. But the Legislature expects counties to make sure the felons are not on drugs and are not using the food stamps to supplement their budgets and support their drug habits. I am hardly going out on a limb when I say the counties will prove utterly incapable of tracking whether drug-felon food-stamp recipients start using drugs again. The counties can barely track the current addresses of food-stamp recipients.

Then there’s a proposed law by state Senator Richard Alarcón of Los Angeles that once again aims at the grape-growing industry, which is virulently despised in avidly pro-union Sacramento.

Under SB 1901, except under a few circumstances, people who are employed as grape pickers no longer can also be employed as grape tasters who taste unwashed grapes. Having the grape pickers also taste grapes (in order to rank them for things like sweetness) is seen as physical abuse by our legislators.

I watched state Senator Liz Figueroa of Sunol speak about the horrors of unwashed-grape tasting at an appropriations hearing one day. For some reason, the crowded hearing was jammed with a strangely normal-looking crowd—not the usual arrogant lobbyists in their $1,500 suits, nor the usual loud public-employee-union workers in their matching T-shirts.

The audience of average-looking folks kept audibly guffawing and murmuring whenever a politician leaned into a microphone to denounce unwashed-grape tasting as “cruel” and “inhumane.”

I began to marvel over the fact that, somehow, a large number of sane people had stumbled into a Sacramento committee hearing. I mean, it’s practically not allowed. “Public” hearings are dominated by big-money lobby groups with permanent offices in Sacramento.

Figueroa got Alarcón’s grape-tasting ban approved, and then she moved on to another issue: making it a crime to crop a dog’s ears in California. This law would devastate certain sectors of California’s top-notch canine industry. But the Legislature tends not to give much thought to the livelihoods of people it doesn’t relate to—like professional dog breeders.

But suddenly, Figueroa announced that the ban on ear cropping was being dropped. The audience whooped loudly. As it turned out, the benches were jammed with Doberman breeders and others making an unusual foray into Sacramento politics.

I asked a younger dog breeder what she thought of the grape-tasting discussion and other issues she’d just heard. She said, “If only people knew.”

Some of the dopier laws sitting on Schwarzenegger’s desk don’t actually hurt anyone’s livelihood. But they do take up precious time, even as the Legislature fails to engage in meaningful discussions about the state’s decaying infrastructure, insufficient water reservoirs and outmoded freeways.

One such time-wasting bill is Linden state Senator Mike Machado’s big push to name “purple needlegrass” the state grass of California.

I guess it can’t hurt to honor the noble purple needlegrass (or can it?). But if you add up the staggering number of unneeded laws each year, you grasp why the busy, bustling Legislature rarely gets around to much of importance. This is, after all, the same crowd that can spend up to an hour “adjourning” in honor of people’s birthdays.

Still, we must cling to hope. Schwarzenegger is likely to veto several of the worst bills. Moreover, some terrible bills were killed already, when the ruling Democrats found they couldn’t stomach their colleagues’ worst meddling in our everyday lives.

A bill to force vending-machine operators to sell fruit or health foods was seen as way too much meddling in commerce. So was a hilariously bad idea to make builders use “feng shui” principles of design (a great way to send California construction costs skyrocketing). So was a clinker designed to force restaurant chains to discern and then post the nutritional makeup of their meals.

Moreover, Schwarzenegger will not have the pleasure of vetoing the worst law of 2004: Senator John Vasconcellos’ dream to grant California 14-year-olds the right to vote.

Vasconcellos was eviscerated at comedy clubs around the nation and was famously belittled by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. One Stewart sidekick labeled Vasconcellos “Senator Moon Doggy” and said Vasconcellos’ wacky idea “just blew my mind.”

If California residents knew half of what’s contained in the 1,000-plus new laws and crimes dreamed up by the Legislature each year, that’s exactly what they’d say, too.