‘Abstain’ Tactic Kills Bills

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When a bill to increase penalties for selling methamphetamine came before an Assembly committee in April, no one voted against it.

It failed anyway.

The bill vote, like half of all failed votes this legislative session, fell victim to expressed indifference – too many legislators abstained or didn’t show up.

Given two choices – "aye" or "no" – on every vote, California legislators picked neither and failed to vote roughly 22,000 times so far this session, according to a Bee analysis of all 300,000 votes cast.

Sometimes legislators were sick. Sometimes they were on vacation. But a lot of times they just didn’t want to go on record supporting a particular bill.

"They take a walk," said Elisabeth Kersten, who ran the bipartisan Senate Office of Research for two decades and is now a public policy professor at the University of Southern California.

"To abstain is really the same as voting ‘no,’ " said Kersten, because a bill needs a certain number of votes to pass and an abstention does nothing to help it get there.

There is a key difference, Kersten said: It’s easy for a challenger to rub an incumbent legislator’s nose in an unpopular "yes" or "no" vote; it’s harder for that challenger to attack the legislator for not expressing an opinion.

And that makes for some weird vote tallies, with entire parties seemingly taking bathroom breaks when a controversial vote is called.

The April 14 vote to increase meth distribution penalties, for instance, needed four ‘aye’ votes to pass the Assembly Public Safety Committee. A ‘no’ vote was a natural for future campaign ads portraying legislators as "soft on crime."

Both Republicans on the committee voted ‘aye,’ approving the tougher penalties. But all five Democrats on the committee failed to vote. So, despite a lack of stated opposition from legislators, the bill died.

A week later, the tables were turned as the Legislature took up a resolution declaring a "National Multicultural Cancer Awareness Week." The resolution pointed out that cancer incidence is often higher among minorities.

Democrats overwhelmingly supported the measure. Republicans were not keen, but who wants to vote against a bill with the words "cancer awareness" in it?

So, in the end, one Republican voted for the measure, one against, and the remaining 42 Republicans failed to vote. In this case, the bill passed because Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the Legislature.

Abstaining is "a way of getting off the hook," said Ed Costantini, a retired UC Davis professor and former director of its political science department. "Suppose you are a pro-life Democrat. That’s not the way Democrats vote. So it’s much easier if you are running against an opponent to say that you were absent" instead of voting against abortion.

Bargaining plays a role, too. For example, Sen. Abel Maldonado, the current nominee for lieutenant governor, failed to vote on roughly one-fourth of contested bills – measures on which the majority of Democrats voted one way and the majority of Republicans voted another. That’s one of the Senate’s highest abstention rates on contested bills.

In a recent Bee interview, Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, said he often abstains when he knows a bill will be coming back for another vote. Citing the recent budget crisis where he helped get several vote reform measures onto future ballots, Maldonado said voting earlier would have compromised his ability to strike a deal that would be good for Californians.

"I always make the tough votes," Maldonado said. "But as soon as you commit a ‘no’ vote, (the Democrats) won’t negotiate anymore."

It’s technically illegal to trade a vote on one bill for another legislator’s vote on an unrelated bill, but every budget includes sweeteners aimed at gaining the votes of particular legislators.

Touchy bills and delicate compromises aside, several legislators just weren’t around to cast votes, for various reasons.

Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, has missed 525 votes so far this session – about one-fourth of possible votes and the second-highest total in the Legislature. Cedillo ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress earlier this year.

When asked about the missed votes, Dan Savage, Cedillo’s chief of staff, declined to provide specifics. Instead, he said that "over the past year the Senator was present for, and in some cases cast decisive votes on, health, environmental, and budgetary bills despite a competitive bid for an open congressional seat in Southern California."

Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, topped Cedillo, missing 931 votes so far this session – about one-third of possible votes.

Oropeza said she missed most of those votes while caring for her mother, who lives alone in Southern California and became ill earlier this year.

Oropeza said she herself came down with the flu at one point during the session, and she had planned a Mediterranean cruise for November, when the Senate typically is not in session. When the Senate was called backed to deal with water issues, Oropeza said she couldn’t cancel without losing $6,000. And, anyway, she was already aboard her ship.

"It’s very important to be there for votes," Oropeza acknowledged, adding that she kept in contact with her staff and was prepared to do whatever it took to get to Sacramento if a bill hinged on her vote.

When previous missed votes were brought up in a brutal 2007 race for an open U.S. congressional seat, Oropeza responded that she was battling cancer at the time of her absences. Besides her bout with the flu this year, however, Oropeza did not cite health issues as a reason for missing 2009 votes.

Oropeza was counted as present during roll call on days where she missed about half of the 931 votes, according to a Bee review of Senate daily journals. Her absences tended to come at the beginning or end of the week. In addition, her office said roll call often is taken early in the day and she would sometimes leave later to attend to her mother or official business.

Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, missed about 18 percent of votes this session, the fourth-highest total in the Legislature. (Former Assemblyman Mike Duvall ranked third, missing a large number of votes as controversy swarmed around his boasts of an affair with a lobbyist, recorded by a microphone left on as he waited for a committee hearing to resume.)

"With the exception of an illness, (Saldana) was managing obligations that fall within her responsibilities as a member of Assembly leadership, chair of the bipartisan women’s caucus, and representative of her district," her spokesman, Joe Kocurek, said in an e-mail.

While not voting can be a safe move on certain hot-button issues, doing it too much carries its own political baggage, several experts said.

"If legislator Smith is missing votes, and I was running against Smith, I’d bring that up," said Costantini, the former UC Davis professor.

Besides, legislators are elected to make decisions on behalf of their constituents, said Jamie Court, president of Santa Monica-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, which published a study on legislative abstentions five years ago.

"Not voting is really the dirty little secret of why there is so much gridlock in Sacramento," said Court, whose organization, which leans left, was formerly called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "If you are elected to represent your district, you really should vote on any bill."

Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, agrees. He abstained on only five votes this session, fewer than any other legislator.

Feuer is so vehement on the topic that he spent more time explaining his five abstentions to The Bee – many, he said, were to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest – than some legislators spent explaining why they missed several hundred votes.

"We got elected to stand up and be counted on the big issues facing the state," said Feuer. "Voters are entitled to know where we stand."

Contact the author at [email protected].

Consumer Watchdog
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