Capitol field trip!

Feb. 24, 2010

Most people probably get the impression that I spend my days at the state Capitol, prowling the hallways for story leads. Actually I get over to the Capitol very little, but lately I’ve been visiting more often, if for no other reason than to get out of the office. My trip yesterday, for instance, was quite eye-opening.

Steven Greenhut, my editor, and I walked over around three in the afternoon. It was the last day of the 45-day “fiscal emergency” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had declared, and the Legislature had to do something, anything, on the budget. We were still fumbling our way through security when a legislative aide walked up to Greenhut and said hi. They knew each other slightly, so the three of us talked a bit on our way into the building.

“This is the first day the Assembly members are actually seeing the bills,” the aide told us.

Wait, I said. The Senate only now is sending over the budget stuff? That’s extraordinary.

“Yeah, it is extraordinary,” the aide said, adding that the Assembly members were still on the floor, and would remain there for some time.

Saying goodbye to the aide, we headed up the grand staircase towards the Assembly chambers. “I always like walking this way,” Greenhut said. “Past the governors’ portraits…”

“You mean, the portrait,” I said, stopping in front of the infamous portrait of Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. I first saw it as a teenager, during one of those junior high school field trips to the state Capitol, and even at that young age recognizing it as something unique and cool. The bright colors, severe lines and splotchy brush strokes contrast vividly with the rest of the portraits of California’s governors. This is especially true of the most recent one, which depicts a smiling Gray Davis wearing a blue shirt and red tie while standing among bright yellow wildflowers; a far more fantastical image than the portrait of Brown, in fact.

Taking a seat near the door of the Assembly chambers public gallery (don’t even ask about our trying to get a press credential that would give us access to the floor itself), we watched Assembly members vote on a number of “jobs” bills, including one that would fiddle with the excise taxes on diesel fuel to provide more money to public transit. It’s a strange time to be a legislator in California, where the opposing forces of deficit reduction and economic stimulus are constantly grasping and pulling at every lawmaker.

Well, strange for those who think about their place in the state’s history. Others, like Assemblyman Jim Silva, R-Huntington Beach, seemed blissfully unaware of any pressures whatsoever as we watched him fiddle with note cards before votes were taken. Both Greenhut and I had watched Silva constantly refer to notes during meetings when he was an Orange County Supervisor, and in a way it was rather comforting to see that the darling of the state GOP hadn’t changed a bit.

We watched the action, if you can call it that, for about 20 minutes, then headed over to see Senator Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana to talk about his recent trip to China, state unemployment and a curious bill in Wisconsin that ties that state’s air quality legislation to California’s. Correa is your classic pol – friendly, intelligent and all over the ideological map.

In 1999, then-Assemblyman Correa introduced the notorious “3 percent at 50” legislation that made it possible for municipalities to expand public employee retirement plans far beyond their ability to pay for them. A decade later, Senator Correa sponsored SB 752, which allowed Orange County to create a two-tier benefit plan that provided a modest pension reform that can help reduce pension costs for municipalities.

We hung out in Correa’s office for a half or so, then headed back to ours. We got back around five, where I found the following message from KQED’s John Myers (@KQEDCap_Notes) on my Twitter feed:

“Asm Majority Leader Torrico announces all votes taken so far were in error. Wrong versions of #cabudget bills were voted on.”

In other words, the votes Greenhut and I had watched barely an hour earlier were mistaken, non-binding and, ultimately, bogus – unlike my brief visit to the Capitol, which turned out to be a very good use of my time.

-Anthony Pignataro

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