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May 14, 2014
Viewpoints: Taxation without representation - a reality for 3 million Californians


(May 14— By Joel Anderson, Special to The Bee)

"Taxation without representation is tyranny." As the American Revolution gained strength, this phrase was the rallying cry of the colonists. These revolutionaries believed that because they were not directly represented in British Parliament, any laws that body passed taxing colonists were illegal.

More than 230 years later, 3 million Californians currently pay taxes without any direct representation in the state Senate. And, if Senate Constitutional Amendment 17 is passed, that number will only continue to grow.

Our forefathers worked to prevent Californians from extended lack of representation. The California Constitution purposefully outlines only three methods of discipline: censure, reprimand and expulsion. Nowhere does the Constitution mention suspending legislators.

Yet seven weeks ago, three senators were "suspended" with pay from the California Senate. Sen. Roderick Wright was found guilty of eight felonies. Sen. Ron Calderon was indicted on federal corruption charges after an FBI sting, and Sen. Leland Yee was charged in federal court with accepting bribes and gun trafficking. While suspended, these senators are still paid, yet are banned from executing any of the duties of their office, leaving 3 million Californians without a voice or a vote in the Senate. The people's rights have been suspended.

Now, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg seeks to make "suspension" constitutional by introducing Senate Constitutional Amendment 17, which would add "suspension" to the California Constitution.

When presenting his bill to the Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee, Steinberg downplayed the "unfortunate genesis of this bill." He also stated that his measure would give the Legislature the new ability to suspend a member without pay through a simple majority vote – a move that heavily favors the majority party – rather than a vote of two-thirds as required for expulsion. Responding to bipartisan concerns, Steinberg on Wednesday proposed an amendment to the measure to require a vote by two-thirds, and the Rules Committee approved SCA 17 on a 4-0 vote.

When questioned, Steinberg could not name any checks and balances that would be put in place to ensure each constituent's right to have representation for their district, or protect their legislators from undue influence lorded over them by leadership. He also refused to say how long suspension would last, who would represent that senator's constituents while they were suspended, or even on what grounds someone could be suspended.

Worse, Steinberg could not articulate why this new, opaque measure was needed when the California Constitution clearly provides expulsion as a means to remove senators from office while immediately setting an election in motion. Under his bill, constituents would be left without answers and without representation.

Instead of pursuing constitutional options, he ignores them. Steinberg is tactically leveraging this moment of crisis in the Capitol to expand and gain power for the offices of the Senate and Assembly leaders.

By removing any system of legal checks and balances on the serious matter of suspending a senator, Steinberg is adding another weapon to the arsenal of any future leader of the Senate, no matter how partisan they might be.

Unfortunately, legislative leaders have a long history of wielding intimidation tactics to punish dissenting voices in the Legislature and gain undue influence for themselves. These practices are unethical, and often lead to legislators feeling pressured into voting with their political bosses, rather than representing their constituents.

In 2007, Senate leader Don Perata locked three senators out of their offices for days. Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown would frequently strip Assembly members of committees and move their offices. Brown himself, when an Assemblymen, once saw his office moved to a former bathroom. In 2008, Assemblywoman Nicole Parra was moved out of the Capitol and into an office building across the street, simply because she refused to vote with her party on a spending bill. In 2011, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino lost $67,179 from his staff budget after he, too, opposed his party's budget plan.

Bullying tactics from legislative leadership ranging from budget cuts to office changes to stripping committees has been standard practice in the Legislature for years. Now the Senate leader wants to introduce "suspension" – a powerful new way to suspend a legislator indefinitely without reason or oversight.

Weeks ago, I tried to bring forward a resolution to expel all senators guilty of felonies from the Senate. In a heated exchange, Steinberg would not allow any consideration on the Senate floor. Instead, he forced the resolution back to the Rules Committee, where it would stay in purgatory until he himself released it.

How can we entrust an unnecessary, open-ended and unchecked punishment to an office with such a history? Moreover, why in the world would the leadership be willing to deny voters their representation?

By cynically using a crisis to add power where the founders did not intend, Steinberg exposes millions of Californians to long periods of taxation without representation, and sharpens his sword to intimidate those who vote their conscience.

State Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, represents the 36th Senate District.