Absentee lawmakers made big difference

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San Gabriel Valley Tribune (California)

State legislators’ failure to cast votes killed more than 200 bills in the 2001-02 legislative session, according to a new University of Southern California study.

The study by four graduate students found that of the 330 bills that were rejected during that session, more than two-thirds died because legislators abstained or were absent from the vote which, under the California Legislature’s rules, had the same effect as a “no’ vote.

The study also found Republicans had a far better record when it came to casting critical votes than Democrats. The 35 legislators who abstained the most on critical votes those in which abstentions made a difference were all Democrats.

A consumer group which released and promoted the study argued that legislators should suffer consequences, including docked pay, for failing to vote.

“It’s legislators’ job to vote,” said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “In order to be held accountable for their actions, legislators need to be voting and putting their positions on the record.”

The foundation, a liberal group based in Santa Monica, suggested the study topic to the students and provided some assistance, but was not involved in the actual research and writing and did not pay for the report, Balber said. One of the student authors worked for the foundation for about a year prior to attending USC.

The foundation has crafted a ballot measure which it may submit in 2006 if the Legislature does not reform its rules. The measure would dock legislators one day’s pay for days when they miss votes.

Balber also suggested the Legislature tighten up and enforce its rules regarding voting, including further reducing the size of committees to lessen scheduling conflicts.

Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Glendale, the Assembly majority leader, defended the practice of abstaining on votes, saying it is often done as a courtesy to fellow legislators. Because not casting a vote is the same as a no vote, there is no ambiguity on where legislators who abstain stand on an issue, he argued.

“I think most constituents understand if you didn’t vote for the bill, you weren’t for it,’ said Frommer, who abstained on one-third of the bills that failed, placing him 21st out of 80 Assembly members.

Abstentions are also necessary when there is a conflict of interest or when committees are meeting at the same time, he noted.

The report by USC graduate students Meg Barclay, Bari Bendell, Emmy Rhine and Amy Young examined the 5,162 bills that were introduced during the 2001-02 session. Of those, 41 percent were approved and signed by the governor; 44 percent died in committee or without a full vote; 8 percent were vetoed by the governor; and 6 percent failed.

It was those 330 bills that failed which the authors more closely examined, because abstentions had a possibility of influencing the outcome. Of those, 226 had an abstention rate that was enough to make a difference.

Rhine said the study’s authors were careful not to draw any conclusions as to whether the rate of abstentions was a positive or negative development, but noted it may be surprising to most constituents.

“It’s something you don’t expect,’ Rhine said. “People believe they elect their officials to make hard decisions on legislation. And I think your average citizen would think they would evaluate the issue and vote either yes or no.”
Harrison Sheppard can be reached at [916] 446-6723, or by e-mail at [email protected]

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