Only occasionally does a proposed California law approach the status of being an absolute no-brainer.
There’s just one such measure before the Legislature right now, a bill that could possibly restore a modicum of public trust in California government, even if it doesn’t go anywhere near as far as it should.
With the Capitol under the firm control of a single party, suspicions of corruption and favoritism are common in California today. It’s for sure that Democratic Party domination pretty much assures that anyone Gov. Jerry Brown or his successor appoints to major state jobs will be confirmed with few questions.
Take the example of Mark Ferron, now in his second three-year term on the state Independent System Operator (ISO) board of governors. This board essentially decides where California utilities buy electricity and then supervises its distribution.
Ferron, a former Deutsche Bank investment official and later a partner at the Silicon Valley Venture (capital) Fund, contributed the maximum $25,900 to Brown’s 2010 election kitty and got a seat on the powerful rate-setting state Public Utilities Commission soon after. An illness forced him to leave the PUC, but on his recovery Brown quickly put him on the ISO. Two open questions: Would he have gotten either job without his contribution? Would Brown even know who he is without that money?
While on the PUC, Ferron voted consistently for whatever big utility companies wanted, so long as they complied with state laws demanding an ever-greater emphasis on renewable energy, regardless of cost. Never mind consumer concerns over prices. He’s had no significant differences with utilities while on the ISO, either, and his current term runs out Dec. 31, giving Brown just enough time to appoint him to a third term if he likes.
Because Ferron, with degrees in mathematics and economics, had no prior background in utility regulation, it was hard to see how he qualified for the jobs Brown tossed his way – but then $25,900 has usually been enough to buy California political donors something, whether it’s a job or mere access to high officials. Money talks.
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Now comes Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced with a proposal that would ban contributions to state senators by political appointees for up to a year between the time they are nominated to a job by the governor and when the vote on their confirmation comes up in the Senate.
This wouldn’t keep someone like the seemingly unqualified Ferron off a powerful board like the PUC or ISO, but it’s a start. Even though it leaves open the appearance of appointees buying their nominations, at least it would remove the appearance of appointees buying confirmation. Ferron, of course, is far from the only political donor with a political patronage job. Another is Mary Nichols, the longtime chair of the state’s Air Resources Board, which sets smog policy for cars and other pollution sources and is currently battling federal efforts to squash some California anti-smog regulations.
Not only did she kick in $5,000 to Brown’s campaign before he reappointed her to the job she held both in his earlier administration and under ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but she also gave $1,000 to a senator’s reelection campaign before her confirmation vote came up. Was there any doubt which way that senator would vote?
These practices are common not just at the state level, but also in the federal government. So it’s no wonder many believe government is really about keeping the rich that way.
These kinds of financially greased appointments and confirmations have gone on at other powerful commissions, too, ranging from the state’s Transportation Commission (which hands out highway repair and construction funds) and its Energy Commission to boards regulating everything from chiropractors to solid waste disposal.
Appointees may or may not be qualified, but there’s a public perception regardless that corruption is deeply embedded in both the state and national capitals.
The only way to change this is to take at least some money out of the picture. Gray’s bill is a start and an obvious no-brainer. Once it is (hopefully) passed, the next action ought to limit how soon governors can name big donors to powerful jobs for which they may or may not be qualified.