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Bill Kennedy: An insider's view of capital dysfunction

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: March 26, 2009 11:49 p.m.
Updated: March 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Last month, I presented my view that our legislature in Sacramento is dysfunctional on fiscal matters. One problem, among other reasons, is that our elected officials tend to vote on party lines rather than on the individual merits of any given budget issue.

Another snag is that there is no reasonable review of programs over time, meaning that well-intentioned items funded in the past take on a life of their own and continue to waste taxpayers' dollars long after the reason for their implementation has passed.

Earlier this week, I had an occasion to get a first-hand look at why our legislature is so divided along party lines and why programs exist without review while also getting a glimmer of hope that things might not be irreparable. The intensive two-day event that allowed those insights was the fourth annual Sacramento road trip, jointly conducted by State Assemblyman Cameron Smyth and KHTS-AM 1220 radio and sponsored by AT&T.

This annual trip grants local business people, government officials, educators, nonprofit administrators, arts advocates, media personnel, concerned citizens and the like a first-hand look at the workings of our state government while presenting to our elected officials a unified front on issues of concern to the people of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Assemblyman Smyth served as a good host, using his good offices to arrange meetings for our group with a laudable slate of our state governmental leaders and legislators.

One of those leaders was Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, a Democrat representing the 50th Assembly District that includes Commerce, Downey and other communities in southern L.A. County.

Assemblyman De La Torre presented a very candid and chilling story about how business is conducted in Sacramento, where ambitious legislators must "go along to get along" with powerful party leaders who concentrate the real power in the state amongst a privileged few.

To fully appreciate De La Torre's story, one must understand the perspective from which it comes. He was one of the Democrats' shining stars, a former aide in the Clinton White House who is known to be unafraid to tackle tough issues.

In the Assembly he pushed for the passage of landmark legislation to guarantee transparency in health care and insurance programs in California. He also vigorously led a campaign to hold the government accountable for spending taxpayer dollars, a result of his unpleasant experience with corrupt city officials who embezzled millions of dollars from his beloved city of South Gate.

De La Torre's many talents had him on the fast track in the Assembly, elevating him to the coveted position of Chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee, a role many consider to be No. 2 only to the Chairman of the Assembly. It is instructive that in the Senate, the position of the Chair of the Rules Committee automatically attaches to the Senate President Pro Tem.

De La Torre, then, seemed destined for bigger and better things with his initial successes in the Assembly. Indeed, last year when many were speculating about a successor to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez in advance of his term limits, the stellar De La Torre was on many people's short list of viable candidates. But then he got a painful lesson on how things really work in Sacramento.

In his mandated year of "retirement," the term-limited Speaker of the Assembly Nunez decided to provide a golden parachute of sorts for his staffers, proposing legislation that would grant a bonus of two years' salary to staffers who elected to retire early, a class of employees that included many on Speaker Nunez's staff who planned on leaving when his term expired.

It seems such favors to outgoing power players in Sacramento have come to be expected.

But not this time. From his position as Chair of the Rules Committee, De La Torre opposed the legislation on the grounds it was an unnecessary and imprudent use of the taxpayers' money.

In short order, Nunez had De La Torre removed from his position as Chair of the Rules Committee. Goodbye position of major influence; goodbye opportunity to be considered for elevation to Speaker; hello to other ambitious aspirants in the Assembly who were sent a strong message that if you want to get ahead, you had better accede to the interests of the power brokers and not necessarily those of the people.

It is said that adversity does not build character; it reveals it. In De La Torre's case that is true because he is not folding based on his distasteful experience with Nunez. He is fighting back, having argued persuasively with the new Assembly Leader Karen Bass to form a new Committee on Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review, whose role is to be the Assembly's watchdog on how effectively taxpayers' dollars are spent.

The committee, in existence only since December, already has taken two small steps to reduce wasteful spending.

The first was to review the plethora of annual studies of California-funded programs, some 2,800 or more, which simply do not receive any attention from the legislators for whose use they are intended. The committee has recommended legislation to limit the requirement to a select few of the studies that can reasonably be acted upon.

The second issue the committee is working is a review of governmental bloat, and their first target is the State Corrections bureaucracy, which has grown by 32 percent over the past few years without ample justification, during a period when most agencies have been forced to reduce costs.

This start is a glimmer of hope that our dysfunctional budget performance in Sacramento can be fixed. One can only hope that responsibly minded representatives like De La Torre can continue the good work of the people, perhaps ultimately to enact a "zero-based" budget review that will reveal all outdated programs that can be killed. For that to happen, we need more representatives of character who will step forward to do what's right for the people, even if it means putting their own political ambitions in jeopardy.

Only then can we expect to have the type of government the people deserve ... Right here, right now!

Bill Kennedy lives in Valencia and is a principal in Wingspan Business Consulting. He serves the community as Chairman of the Planning Commission, Chairman of the SCV Chamber of Commerce, and member of the following boards: Valley Industrial Association, College of the Canyons Foundation, and Habitat for Humanity SF/SCV. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of these organizations or those of The Signal.


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