Bill to Reimburse CA Taxpayers for Special Elections Fails in Assembly Committee

An on-going philosophical tug of war exists between disgruntled taxpayers and legislators who on the one hand, are working hard for their constituents, while on the other, suddenly find themselves in a situation where they are given the choice to leave the legislature for greener pastures. Literally.  

Such was the case last December when Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno) announced he would forgo the last year of his term to take a position with PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s trade organization. While a legislator’s salary of $97,197 (along with tax free per diem of over $20,000) is nothing to sneeze at, the lure of far greater income and such things as more time to spend with his wife and two children, with a third on the way, was too much to take a pass on.

The debate about the obligation of legislators to serve out their terms will be forever on-going. They leave to run for higher office, they leave to take other jobs — sometimes within the public sector itself (gubernatorial appointments for example),  and sometimes, in the most unfortunate of circumstances, they leave for health reasons.

Most times the result, as it was in the Perea case, is the need for a special election to fill the seat. Not only was this costly for Fresno County, but it left his roughly half million constituents, including some of the state’s poorest, with no representation for months.

Enter Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), upset with the fact that taxpayers, in what is his county as well, are stuck with a $575,000 special election bill. Patterson recently introduced AB 2284, which would have required legislators who leave office early to pay for the election to replace them using their campaign funds to the extent the funds may cover costs.

In the case of Perea, there was over $800,000 left in his war chest. He could have underwritten the whole thing.

Proponents of AB 2284, such as the counties of Fresno and Tulare, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association did not criticize the decision of a legislator to leave but insist that the decision must come with consequences. They testified that forcing taxpayers to pick up the cost of a special election so someone can get a higher paying job is just plain unfair.  

As might be expected, particularly as it appeared on the surface to be one of those Republican vs. Democrat things, the bill failed in the Democratic-controlled Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee. While it would be highly unusual for legislators to force this kind of rule on themselves, in reading the committee analysis, there may be room for re-visiting the issue.

There appear to be several concerns expressed that may have been addressed by Patterson with a bit more careful drafting. Among them, allowable use of excess campaign funds for things other than charitable contributions and allowing the funds to pay necessary legal expenses once an office-holder leaves. The absence of that ability may actually incentivize someone to stay in office rather than resign just so legal bills can be paid by their campaign.

And, according to the committee analysis, the language of the bill itself continued to prevent excess funds from being used to repay either the counties or repay contributors — the very things Assemblyman Patterson had been promoting.

These and a few other “in the political weeds” things that only legislators look at were clearly enough to raise the red flags necessary to prevent AB 2284’s passage. This, in spite of the fact that there was no opposition to the bill on file. Opponents were savvy enough to see that in the world of Sacramento, there would be no need to be criticized for opposing a “no-brainer” bill–at least on its surface.

Is this a serious case of reform legislation or a matter of cross-town partisan bickering for points with the local voters? If it’s the former, go back to the drawing board and make it work. If the latter, let it go.

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