A new website combining legislative hearing videos and transcripts, information on bills, and data on contributions and gifts to lawmakers in an easy-to-use way was rolled out Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee and a passel of good-government advocates.
Digital Democracy not only makes all of this information more accessible and searchable and easier to cross-reference, but also interfaces with social media so users can easily share what they find. The site was created by students at Cal Poly’s Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy – of which Blakeslee, a Republican from San Luis Obispo, is founding director – so not only advocates and journalists but all Californians can get a clearer picture of what government does and why.
“Technology has radically changed the way society interacts but government is on the cutting edge of 1973. All of this only increases the gap between people and government,” Newsom, who is running for governor in 2018, said in a news release. “Digital Democracy gives citizens the keys to unlock capitol corridors and assess facts in a way that they can be part of the process of governing again.”
Blakeslee said in the release that his institute developed this “to open up government.
“Right now it is a very closed place and the public is largely not able to see what happens, unless they are attending legislative committee hearings in person,” he said. “The California State Legislature does not produce transcripts or minutes from these hearings. There is no list of who was in the room, influencing decisions that were made. With this powerful new platform, Californians will be able to see exactly what people are saying as state laws are being written.”
Newsom serves on the institute’s advisory board member and is author of the 2013 book Citizenville, which explores civic participation in the digital age.
The institute released a poll last week that found overwhelming support for requiring that all state documents, including the budget, be available online with a Google-like search engine. It also found that nearly all Californians want the Legislature’s public hearings to be captured by video and made available to the public on the Internet within 24 hours.
In his news release, he had this to say about the first:
“Reforming state government and constitutional reform is imperative to solving some of the challenges we face regarding the budget and governance. We cannot just complain about a system, we must be willing to take serious steps to fix it. This includes taking a long-term, focused look at the structure of government and the way our government serves the public. Real reform won’t happen overnight. It could take years, but it must start now and we need to focus on immediate, short range and long term structural change.”
About the committee on the middle class, he said:
“By restoring the middle class we can also restore our economy. The middle class is being systematically wiped out. Most Americans are realizing less wealth and are seeing their wealth decline at an alarming rate. The chasm between prosperity and poverty has never been wider. The average income of the richest 5 percent of families in 1979 was 10 times that of the poorest 20 percent of families. In 1999, the income gap had nearly doubled to 19 times, ranking first among the developed countries, and setting a record since the Census began studying the situation in 1947.”
And about the small business and underground economy committee, he said:
“One way to restore our economy is to foster small business. Small businesses are innovative, creative, hard-working, and provide many jobs in our marketplace. I know this firsthand as a former small business owner. By examining this issue, we may be able to find ways to combat the economic loss that the underground economy brings to the State as well as small businesses. Small businesses are a driving force in California’s economy. But California’s small businesses and their workers are facing an ever-increasing danger – their ability to compete in the state and global economy is threatened by the underground economy. This underground economy plagues many of our once vital industries, drives down wages, creates harsh working conditions, and undercuts legitimate businesses to a point where they can no longer fairly compete and provide well-paying jobs to Californians.”
The way these things typically work is that DeSaulnier will reach out to his peers and figure out who’s interested in participating, and then go back to the Rules Committee to have those people appointed to these panels. Then they’ll start holding hearings, with an eye toward developing legislation most likely for next year.
I think the more cynical among us look at something like this and say, “Oh boy, just what we needed – more committees!” Kinda like the feeling you get when someone announces a new blue-ribbon commission. I wanted to ask DeSaulnier why these issues aren’t being, or can’t be, adequately addressed within the existing committees, but I haven’t heard back from him this afternoon.
Legislators love to complain about how the ballot initiative process costs the state money and ties their hands on the budget.
But a new analysis from the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies revealed today in Oakland shows that of the $11.85 billion worth of ballot measures voters approved between 1988 and 2009, 83 percent were placed on the ballot by the Legislature.
“Most of the ballot-box budgeting has come from you,” Center for Governmental Studies President Bob Stern told members today of the Senate and Assembly Select Committees on Improving State Government co-chaired by state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord.
The center found that of the 68 ballot measures requiring additional funding passed by voters between 1988-2009, 51 originated with the Legislature while 17 were placed on the ballot by proponents who successfully gathered the requisite number of signatures.
Of the 68 measures, 52 were bond measures.
The legislative measures required $9.8 billion in additional government funding, or 83 percent, while the balance totaled $2.05 billion.
The most expensive legislative measure came in 2004, when voters approved a $15 billion plan to close the budget deficit.
The highest price tag among the 17 initiatives that passed was the $500 million annual after-school program.