Policy Today magazine cover
May/June, 2006

PT talks to Tom McClintock, State Senator for California's 19th District and candidate for Lieutenant Governor, about the on-again, off-again nature of the state's infrastructure bond negotiations leading up to the final passage. McClintock's was the only "no" vote on SB 1266, a $19.9 billion transportation bond that will come before voters in November.

PT: After some positive signs at the beginning of the year, negotiations derailed and came back online several times before the final $37 billion package came to pass. What's going on here?

McClintock: All of this is being done by five people in a locked room. What would make you think I know more about it than you do?

PT: There's a perception that both sides went into their corners and cooked up their own plans first, and then were so invested in them that they didn't want to negotiate. So, now that it won't be on the June ballot, it was just a small group trying to…

McClintock: A small group behind locked doors, yes, out of the light of public scrutiny, bypassing the entire deliberative process the Constitution envisioned and has evolved over centuries of democratic practice. Among other things, it's a process that doesn't make very good decisions.

PT: So, they just came up with whatever they came up with and then brought it back to the Legislature in hopes that everyone will agree?

McClintock: That's essentially how they do it. They usually call a late night session and dump it in the Legislature's lap for a single take it or leave it vote, often with no information.

PT: Is that because they give it to you almost at the moment that you have to make the decision?

McClintock: Correct. You saw what they did a few weeks ago.

PT: How would you characterize that?

McClintock: I suppose you could call it juvenile, but that would be unfair to every juvenile. Amateurish? Bush league? Take your pick.

PT: What has been so difficult about this process? It seems like there would be four or five huge infrastructure problems that would be easily agreed upon to solve immediately.

McClintock: There are. And again, one of the oldest provisions in the state Constitution says—with respect to borrowing—that you may only borrow for a single object or project. That's specifically designed to prevent the kind of logrolling that produces a Christmas tree bond measure. And that will be bypassed by another measure they will put on the ballot to suspend that provision of the Constitution. So instead of just asking ourselves how much do we need to build our highway capacity, or how much do we need to build the levy system to protect the state water project, they're simply going to throw them into a grab bag. The measure is not what specifically do we intend to build with this money, it's how much of a bond measure can we get away with putting on the ballot. It's just a lousy way to make decisions.

PT: Does it lead to many district-specific projects?

McClintock: It quite often does. That's one of the dangers of developing public policy behind closed doors. It's very hard to put unjustifiable expenditures in a budget when that budget is being drafted in the full light of day. Justice Louis Brandeis said, "Sunlight is the best of disinfectants." There's no sunlight in the office suites where the big five is meeting.

PT: Why does it have to happen this way? Is it because it's too difficult to reach consensus otherwise?

McClintock: Here's the point: The entire deliberative process that has evolved over centuries of practice is specifically designed to bring disparate view points to a common conclusion. It takes a lot of work. It's a disputatious, contentious, labor intensive process—but it works.

PT: In other words, it's supposed to be difficult.

McClintock: Again, the deliberative process that we have assures that these proposals are thoroughly discussed and compromised, and a common direction is set rationally among a disparate group of people. But they have completely abandoned that deliberative process in favor of this so-called big five system, where a conference committee is convened for the soul purpose of rubber stamping whatever four legislative leaders and the governor decide upon behind closed doors.

PT: Does the election year have anything to do with it?

McClintock: No, because the process has been used with increasing frequency over the past several years. It is directly responsible for some of the greatest fiascoes in our state's recent history, including the electricity reorganization measure, budgets that have put the state on a course to bankruptcy and the bond fiascoes. This is being done in election years and non-election years. And again, it's the collapse of the Constitutional process that has ev-olved over centuries to assure full deliberation over public policy.

PT: Is there any recourse for the rest of the legislators? Maybe this is an optimistic view, but it seems like people from both parties have a lot of the same goals for the state.

McClintock: They may have the same goals, but they have no input. When you have a Legislature of 120 members and 114 of them are literally sitting on the sidelines waiting for a puff of smoke from a big five meeting, the public has no input. And the press cannot offer the kind of scrutiny that's required to assure that the ultimate policy is straight up.

PT: OK, so is there a solution? How do you go about breaking open those doors?

McClintock: Yes. Restore the Constitutional process of legislative deliberation that California's founders envisioned. That, in turn, will require replacement of the legislative leaders. And unfortunately, the political will does not exist in either house to do so. That's something that the public ought to be curious about.

PT: So it's really a matter of the public driving some sort of reform here?

McClintock: I think so. I think they have to start asking their representatives, "Why are you tolerating this kind of closed door, secret decision making?"

PT: Is there an answer for that—a solution?

McClintock: Yeah, it's called backbone.

PT: Senator, thank you for your time.

Tom McClintock represents the residents of California's 19th Senate District. He currently serves as vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. He also serves on the Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, the Government Modernization, Efficiency and Accountability Committee, and the Governmental Organization Committee and the Local Government Committee.