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NEWS RELEASE
Jul 11, 2003


CONTACT: Doug Heller - 310-392-0522 x309

Consumer Group Calls for Fix to Epidemic of Not Voting in California Assembly

FTCR Says Wesson Must Implement Reforms to Curb Cowardly Abstentions
Santa Monica, CA -- Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson should respond to an "epidemic of not voting" that has resulted in the defeat of a series of important consumer protection proposals in recent days, consumer advocates wrote in a letter to Wesson Thursday. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights' (FTCR) call for reforms came on the heals of the defeat of bills to protect consumer privacy (SB 1 -- Speier), ban insurance companies from considering consumers' credit history in rate setting (SB 691--Escutia) and more stringently regulate the way homeowners insurance companies determine eligibility for coverage and whether to renew policies (SB 64 -- Speier).

"California taxpayers do not spend over $130 million each year to pay the salaries of lawmakers and their staff to have politicians remain silent on the issues of the day," the group wrote. "Politicians must either live with the consequences of voting against the public interest or supporting it, but they must take a stand."

For each of the bills, enough committee members did not vote to ensure that the proposals died. On SB 64, for example, 60% of the Assembly Insurance Committee did not vote on the bill, despite extensive testimony. On Thursday, the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee defeated what had been considered the Legislature's primary effort to reform the state's energy system when only three of the committee's 14 members voted on the bill (all opposed).

FTCR noted the role of campaign contributions in the sudden spate of abstentions. The seven members of the Banking and Finance Committee who did not vote on the privacy bill (which would have required consumer consent before financial institutions could share consumer's personal information) received more than $450,000 from corporate interests that wanted the bill killed.

"Lawmakers are failing to vote on bills that receive the most debate, but that are also those from which the powerful interests most want politicians to walk away," FTCR wrote.

In the letter FTCR called on Wesson to implement a series of reforms, and noted that if the epidemic were not curbed, the reforms would be submitted as a ballot initiative.

- Politicians should lose their pay and their per diem whenever they are present but not voting.
- Primary and general election ballot pamphlets should include politicians' "Not-Voting record."
- Every committee analysis should include campaign contributions from interested parties to each member of the committee.
- Lawmakers should be required to mail a list of their top ten contributors to their constituents twice a year.
- The 24-hour disclosure of campaign contributions that is mandated for the last 90 days of an election should be extended year round.

-30-

FTCR sent the following letter to Speaker Wesson:
July 10, 2003

The Honorable Herb Wesson
Speaker, California Assembly
State Capitol, Room 219
Sacramento, CA 95814
VIA FACSIMILE AND U.S. MAIL

Re: The Epidemic of Not Voting in the California Assembly

Dear Speaker Wesson:

In June of last year we asked you to address the problem of Assemblymembers failing to vote on key issues (our letter is attached). When asked about the increase in legislator abstentions, you told the San Francisco Chronicle: "Now that you put this on my mind, I'll look at it."

We must assume that you did not, because the problem has escalated into an epidemic. Indeed, this week alone major consumer protections were killed when Assemblymembers decided to
"take a walk," literally exiting hearing rooms when the bills came up for a vote. Other members remained in committee but were silent when their name was called for a vote.

California taxpayers do not spend over $130 million each year to pay the salaries of lawmakers and their staff to have politicians remain silent on the issues of the day.

Public agencies, non-profit groups and private lobbyists spend hundreds of thousands of hours providing information to legislators. Over forty newspaper reporters write news stories about the issues under consideration at the Capitol on a daily basis. There is no reason whatsoever that a lawmaker who is present can be excused for failing to vote in support or against any piece of legislation.

In particular, lawmakers are failing to vote on bills that receive the most debate, but that are also those from which the powerful interests most want politicians to walk away. For example, yesterday the Assembly Insurance Committee considered SB 691 (Escutia), on whether or not insurance companies should be allowed to use credit history in the setting of insurance rates. Assemblymembers heard extensive supporting testimony from the insurance commissioner, consumer groups, and a Texas economist known to be among the nation's foremost experts on the issue. And then the insurance industry provided a detailed opposition. Many members engaged in the discussion including both Assemblymen Calderon and Horton. But when it came time to vote Calderon and Horton, as well as Assemblymen Nakano, Diaz and Bogh decided to take a walk and the bill went down to defeat.

Immediately thereafter, the committee spent an hour on a proposal supported by consumer groups and the insurance commissioner that would regulate insurers' decisions to deny homeowners coverage and would protect homeowners from unfair cancellations (SB 64 - Speier). On this bill, nearly 60% of the members did not vote, including the committee chairman who not only oversaw the hearing, but whose staff also provided a detailed analysis of the legislation.

Earlier in the week seven of the 12 Banking and Finance Committee members failed to vote on SB 1 (Speier), the privacy bill requiring financial institutions to get written consent before sharing consumers' personal data. (The week before there was an afternoon-long hearing on the measure, after which five committee members took a walk.) Somehow, despite all the hearings and all the publicity the majority of committee members refused to vote. Of course, in order to win politicians' silence, the financial services industry contributed more than $450,000 to the non-voters. As a result, the People of California are going to the ballot box to enact the privacy protections killed by legislators' silence.

The issue of not voting and the silencing effect of campaign contributions has to be addressed. As the Speaker of the Assembly, you must respond to this issue or the People of California will take this to the ballot as well.

Here are the reforms that the Legislature should enact soon:
- Politicians should lose their pay and their per diem whenever they are present but not voting.
- Primary and general election ballot pamphlets should include politicians' "Not-Voting record."
- Every committee analysis should include campaign contributions from interested parties to each member of the committee.
- Lawmakers should be required to mail a list of their top ten contributors to their constituents twice a year.
- The 24-hour disclosure of campaign contributions that is mandated for the last 90 days of an election should be extended year round.

13 months ago -- pointing out that politicians must either live with the consequences of voting against the public interest or supporting it, but they must take a stand ---- we asked you to make changes to address the epidemic of not voting. We still await your response.

Sincerely,

Douglas Heller
Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights
http://www.consumerwatchdog.org
doug@consumerwatchdog.org
ph. 310/392-0522 ext. 309

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