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Wednesday, Aug 15 2012 11:03 PM

State government must conduct business in the open

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    Juan Arambula

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By JUAN ARAMBULA

We Californians are worried about our government, and the growing disconnect between us and our state's government was in plain view yet again.

Last week, the staff of Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate leader, literally pulled the plug on television coverage of a legislative hearing, the purpose of which was to hear facts and arguments about four important ballot measures we'll be voting on in November. It was an outrageous act of what Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters has called "self-serving censorship."

Here are the basic facts. A hearing of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee was convened -- as required -- to give the public a chance to learn about Proposition 31, which is a reform measure designed to make state government work better, along with three tax-raising measures, propositions 30, 38 and 39.

The committee chairwoman, Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, wasn't happy with the decision to cancel the broadcasts, which she said was made without her or her staff's knowledge or consent. Steinberg apologized this week, as he should have.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a volunteer working to get Prop. 31 passed in November. Ironically, Prop. 31 requires that the Legislature do much more of its work out in the open. As a retired legislator, I believe a more rational and open government is better for all the people of California.

Most of us know state government is broken. Polls consistently show the Legislature's approval ratings at or near the bottom. Instead of trying to increase public confidence, we see that legislative leaders would rather pull the plug than let people know what is going on. People are beginning to pay attention, however, and they are not happy with how things are going in Sacramento.

Democracy works best when there is a real commitment to engaging, involving and listening to our citizens. Actions like pulling the plug on televised legislative hearings and voting on bills that no one but the special interests has had time to read take us in the wrong direction. We need more accountability and openness from our state government, not less.

Some of our own California cities are showing the way. The city of Palo Alto has launched an "open data" initiative, which uses technology to inform people about what is going on in the city. In Long Beach, the city has taken it further with the Long Beach Budget Challenge. It's an online simulation for residents to better understand the complexities of their city budget and to recommend choices for spending. We hope this is a trend that spreads all the way to Sacramento.

In November, you and I have some important decisions to make about our state government. Starting soon and going all the way to Election Day, we will be bombarded with radio and TV ads, and our mailboxes, both old-fashioned and electronic, will be stuffed to the brim. Most of these communications will be funded by the special interests that dominate our government, and getting the word out on reforms like Prop. 31 won't be easy because special interests aren't really interested in reform. That's why canceling the broadcast last week was a real disservice to the public.

Opportunities for fair and honest discussions about what these propositions mean are already few and far between. Letting voters know what they will be voting on is a good thing, just like making the Legislature do its work out in the open. It is not only a good thing to do, it is the right thing to do.

Juan Arambula is a former member of the state Assembly and currently serves on the California Forward Action Fund board of directors, which supports and promotes the passage of Proposition 31.

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