Should Legislators Ride Hobby Horses?

In reports about legislators, newspapers use a short description after their name – an “R” for Republican or “D” for Democrat and their home city. Readers then quickly know Sen. Joe Blow, D-Anytown, is a Democrat representing the Anytown area. I used to occasionally chide one assemblyman by following his name with “R-Unions” because he seemed to do a better job representing that group rather than the people of his district.

It’s a given all politicians raise money from special interests, and good-government groups wrestle with the most effective rules to keep them as public-spirited as possible. Despite some tawdry state Senate scandals, most politicians stay above board. This column isn’t about wrongdoing, but about behavior that is perfectly legal, but which nevertheless raises eyebrows.

In particular, some legislators are passionate about issues but promote policies that end up benefiting their own – or their own families’ – industries. It’s common for legislators to specialize in policy areas they know about, but these are legislators who arguably take this a step further. For instance, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, pushed a package of bills to create large new funding sources for affordable housing.

Atkins’ spouse, Jennifer LeSar, is president and CEO of a San Diego-based company that receives government funding for such programs. As a Union-Tribune article in March explained, questions about any potential conflict of interest have been asked not only during her tenure in the Assembly, but date back to her days on San Diego City Council. Atkins got the OK from the city ethics commission in the past – and the state’s Legislative Counsel determined the political reform act did not prohibit her involvement with the housing package.

That 1974 law prohibits a public official from influencing a governmental decision “in which he or she knows or has reason to know that he or she has a financial interest,” according to a letter from the counsel. A legislator may not promote special bills that benefit his or her family directly – but may support general bills that apply to the overall public. In this case, the speaker wouldn’t have any say in how the money is spent, so it’s OK.

“There is no conflict,” according to the speaker’s office, which also pointed to the “human angle.” For instance, Atkins and LeSar met in part through their shared interests in the housing issue – and the only way to totally sidestep these questions “would be for one or both of them to stop pursuing their career passion or avoid falling in love.”

Atkins’ fellow legislators failed to pass AB 1335, which would have created a new fee of $75 to $225 on some real-estate transactions to fund affordable housing programs. Gov. Jerry Brown then nixed AB 35, a tax credit that would have provided $300 million in affordable-housing tax credits. Those were the two big measures.

Many critics wondered whether raising fees is the best way to make housing more affordable. The main affordability culprits are land-use controls and regulatory edicts, which make it costly to add to the housing supply. But that’s a policy matter, rather than one about the appropriateness of an Assembly speaker using her political capital this way.

Atkins isn’t the only one. Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, is a bankruptcy lawyer who has authored a bill that could make it more favorable to declare bankruptcy. Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, is an optometrist who has authored a bill that benefits optometrists. Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, is a former deputy sheriff described by the Sacramento Bee as “law enforcement’s man at the Capitol.”

Again, none of this poses any official conflict of interest. “The key here is disclosure,” said Dan Schnur, a USC professor, former GOP political consultant and former head of the Fair Political Practices Commission. “Voters are entitled to know about any benefit – financial, familial or otherwise – that a legislator will gain from a bill’s passage.”

And Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, agrees there’s a broader good-government issue here: “When a person is elected they have to represent all constituents and need to step back and look at policy issues from a broader lens.”

We can have plenty of disclosure and oversight, but ultimately there’s no easy way to assure that politicians are more committed to the public interest than to special interests.