Editorial

Punishing corrupt politicians is important, but Prop. 50 isn't the way to do it

Proposition 50, the sole measure on the June 7 ballot, grew out of an extremely bad year for the California Senate.

It was 2014, and one veteran lawmaker — Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) — had been convicted in January of voter fraud and perjury for lying to voters about living in his district. In February, authorities indicted Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) on charges including tax fraud, accepting bribes and money laundering. Then in March, Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was arrested on suspicion of soliciting bribes, arms-trafficking and racketeering.

There was a strong sense that these legislators needed to be removed from their official lawmaking duties, either by suspending them until their cases were resolved or expelling them outright. In the end, the Senate voted to suspend all three, though many legislators were unhappy that Wright, Calderon and Yee would continue to draw a paycheck and receive benefits until leaving office or until their cases were resolved. Then-Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg explained at the time that the state Constitution doesn't allow members to suspend one another without pay. To mollify the critics, Steinberg persuaded his colleagues to propose a ballot measure that would explicitly authorize the Legislature to suspend members without pay on a two-thirds vote.

The three problematic legislators are long gone from the Capitol, either resigned or termed out of office. Yee has since been convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Calderon's case has not yet gone to trial, but he has been termed out of office. Yet the proposed constitutional amendment, Proposition 50, is still on the June ballot, like a hangover still lingering from that dark period.

The proposition may sound appealing — why should legislators continue to get paid while under investigation for criminal acts? — but voters should reject it. One reason to do so is that it would violate the right to due process afforded to every citizen of this country, including politicians who are behaving badly.

The proposition also would not limit the use of this punishment to elected officials who are accused (or convicted) of breaking laws. The new language simply adds the possibility of suspension without pay to the section of the state constitution setting out how the Senate and Assembly may police themselves, and lays out what suspension means in practical terms. It doesn't set any criteria for what transgressions would justify this punishment, and there's no mechanism to ensure that it would be applied consistently. Indeed, the cases of Wright, Yee and Calderon make that point. Thought Wright was convicted in January, it wasn't until March, after Yee's arrest, that he was suspended along with the other two.

Another problem is that unpaid suspension could conceivably be used for political reasons. Many legislators come from modest means, and losing their legislative paycheck could force them out of office.

The opponents of this proposition, who include Sen. Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon), worry that it would give lawmakers another reason not to expel members who really should be removed from the Legislature. Anderson, the sole senator to vote no on the suspensions in 2014, had pushed for Wright to be expelled shortly after his conviction, but Steinberg would not allow the Senate to vote on that proposal. The result was that a convicted criminal continued to receive a paycheck, but because he was suspended, the constituents of his south Los Angeles district went unrepresented in the Senate for months.

Notwithstanding 2014, it is rare that elected state officials are charged with bribery, voter fraud, gun-running or other crimes so serious as to merit job sanctions. If they do, legislators already have adequate tools at their disposal: expulsion, suspension and censure.

For that matter, so do voters who, with very few exceptions, ought to be the ultimate authority on who is fit to serve.

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 20, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Voters should reject Prop. 50 - The Legislature already has adequate tools to punish its members, including expulsion. - CAMPAIGN 2016" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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