Roaming the halls in Sacramento

Having a momentary and irrational longing for the chaos and excitement of lawmaking, I decided to head back to the halls of the Capitol for a visit this past week. I knew things would be running on overdrive as deadlines for bills to be heard would compete with the budget deadline to create an interesting stew of activity and craziness. Of course, I was not disappointed.
This is the time of year in Sacramento when the heat outside (it was well over 100 degrees) is matched by the heat and intensity of the debate inside over issues, dollars, priorities and values. Even with a budget surplus in the billions, Right-Wing politics reared its ugly head with the Republicans refusing to agree to any budget that included an extremely modest sum to make sure all California’s children have access to health care. Arguing that perhaps a portion of that would be spent for undocumented children, this would be unacceptable and a deal breaker. In order to avoid an extended and unwanted budget stalemate, the $23 Million allocation was removed. Of course, the irony and illogic on this issue are profound. We all know that communicable diseases don’t stop with a green card, citizenship,or other man-made distinction. Nonetheless, the right-wing saw this as an opportunity to rile up the base. The Dems decided there would be other ways to protect California’s children in the weeks ahead, so the extremists were able to declare victory to take to the right-wing talk-shows that look at this as real red-meat for their ratings.

Another short-sighted bit of political posturing came from the Governor’s office. It seems he again wanted to placate the red-meat portion of his base by getting tough on Proposition 36 funding—that’s the Initiative passed by the people of California who declared war on incarcerating drug-addicts at the tune of over $30,000 per year, a practice which has proven totally ineffective in the war-on-drugs. The people, in their wisdom, understood and voted to address drug-addiction as an illness for which community-based treatment has the best chance of winning the addiction wars. Of course, those who sell drugs or commit other crimes are not eligible—another good piece of sensibility by the people. But the governor announced that he would remove from the budget all funding for drug-treatment programs unless various provisions, including incarceration were added to these programs. It gets a little more complicated so we’ve asked the folks who wrote Prop 36 to submit a blog to explain the impacts of this maneuver, (which we’ll post in the next few days). Regardless of what you think of the policy,we’re struggling to meet a federal judge’s mandate to address overcrowding in our state’s oversized prison system. Adding to the prison population by incarcerating non-violent offenders is like trying to dig your way out of a hole by continuing to dig! (Sounds a bit like the situation in Iraq, doesn’t it?…but I digress…..)
One of the things we tend to forget as we dissect and disparage the political process is that the issues and people we are dealing with are real and often come to the process with heartfelt experiences and stories. This was very evident in the difficult discussion about legislation to allow those with terminal illnesses the right to die on their own terms. When I first came to Sacramento as a legislator, I proudly co-authored Dion Aroner’s Death with Dignity legislation. Having lost my own mother to Leukemia, I felt strongly that people deserve to have their last wishes honored and followed.
When we considered the issue six years ago, there was no Bush/Frist political machine attempting to interject right-wing politics as it did in the Terri Shiavo case–turning a family tragedy into a political circus. Before the Bush era, marked by efforts to politicize our private decision-making abilities, the dispute was far more a philosophical than extremist discussion. For a variety of reasons,however,and after honest and respectful debate, the Aroner” Death with Dignity” measure failed.
Now, several years later, Assemblymembers Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine have tried again. Armed with polling showing that the overwhelming number of Californians believe individuals should have this right, the bill was reintroduced this session. Calling it “Compassionate Choice” this time around, the measure would have given people the right to make this end-of-life decision but with numerous caveats and protections to respond to concerns from the Developmentally Disabled and others who see this as a “slippery slope.”
“Compassionate Choice” had passed through the Assembly and was being heard in the Senate during the last week of its eligibility this year. The halls of the Capitol were bursting at the seams with people on both sides of the debate—and with so many suffering terminal illness bravely stepping forward pleading for the right to legally pull-the-plug when the pain and suffering become too great. The testimony was both gut-wrenching and heart-breaking.There was barely a dry-eye in the house. But at the end-of-the-day, the bill came up one vote short. Both Berg and Levine were holding back tears, with genuine anguish and despair on their faces.
The seasoned veterans of Sacramento tell you never to fall-in-love with your bills–that you have to walk away when they fail. But this was one of those moments where the human face of the political process was not to be denied. Both of them were truly crest-fallen. This wasn’t about campaign contributions or attempts to curry political favor. This was about personal freedom and dignity. Having a flashback moment, I understood their devastation and urged each of them not to give up and to continue the fight.
They’ll both be back next session,serving their last terms in Sacramento. I hope they will bring back Compassionate Choice and if they do, I plan to be there for moral support, but this time with a large box of tissues.