USC study: Abstentions, absenteeism played major role in bills’ failing

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Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — Abstentions and absenteeism played a major role in killing bills during the California Legislature’s 2001-02 session, according to a University of Southern California study released Thursday.

A consumer group, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said it may try to put an initiative on the ballot docking lawmakers’ pay when they don’t vote.

Graduate students at USC‘s School of Policy, Planning and Development looked at voting patterns on bills in the Assembly during that two-year period and found that on average more than a third of legislators – 34.3 percent – didn’t vote when bills failed.

Since it takes a majority of a committee and a majority – and sometimes a two-thirds majority – of the full house to pass legislation, an abstention has the same effect as a no vote.

In more than two-thirds of the cases there would have been enough votes to approve the bills if the nonvoting lawmakers had voted for them, the study found.

Democrats, particularly moderates, tended to not vote more than Republicans, according to the study

Rules in both houses require lawmakers to vote when present, but they are rarely enforced.

Legislators gave a variety of reasons for not voting, including not wanting to offend constituents or interest groups or because they agreed with the bill’s thrust but had problems with some provisions.

Assemblyman Jerome Horton, who had the highest percentage of nonvotes on failed bills – 60 percent – said he uses abstentions to signal to the bills’ authors that he’s willing to compromise if they are.

“Personally when I abstain from a bill it’s because generally I agree with the concept of the philosophy. It’s the methodology I may have concerns with,” he said.

“It’s the affirmative votes that get your bill passed, the negative votes that say your bill is dead. It’s the abstention that says you’ve got room to work with those people.”

Horton, an Inglewood Democrat, also said he was concerned about unintended consequences of legislation that have to be fixed later.

“Some real crap comes out of Sacramento from time to time and we have to fix it, even though the concept is good.”

The foundation, which suggested the study, said many of the bills that were killed would have implemented consumer or environmental protections.

The Santa Monica-based group said it would try to put an initiative on the ballot in 2006 to withhold lawmakers’ pay when they don’t vote if the Legislature doesn’t enforce rules against abstentions. The measure would also require the reporting of lawmakers’ missed votes online and in ballot pamphlets.

“Not voting is an epidemic that can only be stopped by enforcing existing rules and creating new standards,” said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the group.

Harry Pachon, a USC professor who supervised the study, said it looked at the impact of both absences and abstentions on voting to ensure that the report looked at “all the factors involved.”

The study focused only on the Assembly because Senate voting records “aren’t as clear,” he said.

On the Net – click this link to download the report:

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