California’s Legislature hasn’t been doing much in the two months since it reconvened – so little, in fact, that legislative leaders are staging policy seminars to show voters that they are really being diligent.
Here’s a better idea: The Legislature should assign some of its highly paid staff – particularly those hired specifically to be investigators – to delve into a number of simmering issues and then conduct rigorous public hearings.
It’s called, for the benefit of the Legislature’s new members, “oversight,” and while their leaders routinely promise it, they rarely deliver. What they call oversight consists mostly of highly orchestrated “hearings” to please major campaign donors and other interest groups.
There have been exceptions, such as the Legislature’s hearings into an Oracle software scandal a decade or so ago, but they’ve been rare.
If lawmakers really want to prove to voters that they’re earning their money this winter, they’ll delve into such matters as:
- The continuing mystery of who knew what and when about the concealment of tens of millions of dollars in the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The organizations that raised private funds for state parks deserve some answers, especially since a criminal investigation isn’t happening and The Sacramento Bee, which broke the story, doesn’t have subpoena power to force the officials involved to talk.
- A somewhat similar tale unfolding about the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, the state’s wildfire agency, which directed millions from a lawsuit settlement into a private fund, rather than the state’s treasury, while seeking new fees on property owners.
- Another revelation by The Bee that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, and perhaps other agencies, have been paying salaried managers overtime for some work, undermining precepts of what managers do.
- The prospect of ongoing unfunded liabilities in CalPERS and other retirement systems, plus unfunded commitments for retiree health care. The Legislature’s budget analyst has highlighted the issue, which the Legislature – out of deference to public employee unions – mostly wants to ignore, but it threatens the state’s long-term fiscal stability.
- The real effect of the criminal justice “realignment” that Gov. Jerry Brown has touted as the solution to prison overcrowding. It has put more criminals on the street, supposedly under probation or parole supervision, rather than behind bars, and there is a debate over whether it has resulted in a spike in crime.
There are other issues that deserve attention, but these five would be a good beginning – if lawmakers aren’t too busy organizing fundraisers, staging self-serving news conferences and manipulating their schedules to maximize their $142 per day in tax-free expense payments.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.