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Government Power of “No” Trumps Citizens’ Right to “Know”

Monday August 20th, 2012   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 12:15pm PDT   •  

On Election Day all voters become policy makers and this November 6 Californians will decide four ballot measures on taxes and spending. The Senate Governance and Finance Committee recently held hearings on these measures and the California Channel gave voters statewide a chance to watch and gain insights from the testimony. Unfortunately, senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg blocked citizens’ access by killing the live broadcast.

Steinberg, a former attorney for the California State Employees Association, defended the act by claiming that the hearings could be fodder for television messages about the measures. That prompted outrage from editorial writers and First Amendment activists, who noted that everything the legislature does is fodder for partisans. A more likely reason for killing the broadcast is that witnesses were going to testify about recent pay hikes Steinberg gave to staffers. He was also likely uncomfortable about testimony on Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s push for a hike in sales and income taxes, and Proposition 38, another tax increase backed by wealthy attorney Molly Munger. Proposition 31 is about accountability in government and Proposition 39 would slap new taxes on business from out of state. Those measures are all in trouble, with good reason.

While California is cutting services and facing a deficit of $16 billion, the state parks department hid $54 million in revenue for 12 years. This has prompted calls for audits of all state departments. California already has the nation’s second-highest taxes and Propositions 30 and 38 are competing to make them higher still. Backers of these propositions want to keep voters in the dark about what these measures will cost, and their consequences. So senate boss Steinberg blocked access for millions of Californians, a blatant act of censorship. One might imagine U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond pulling the plug on C-SPAN coverage of the Clarence Thomas hearings.

“I pride myself on being open and transparent,” Steinberg claimed when he offered a lame apology. He said it wouldn’t happen again but citizens have ample grounds for doubt. No oversight mechanism or safeguard prevented Steinberg from killing television coverage of the hearing, and the senate boss suffered no penalty for abusing the public’s right to know. To reverse Herbert Stein’s Law, what can go on will.

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August 2012