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California lawmakers switch votes often

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POSTED March 13, 2012 7:58 p.m.

SACRAMENTO  (AP) — By long-standing tradition, lawmakers in California’s Assembly who are running for re-election or are seeking a new seat this year will tout their yes or no votes on all manner of bills in the coming months.

But that might not be a true reflection of the stand they took when the bill was being debated. California is one of 10 states in which lawmakers are allowed to change or add their votes after a bill has passed or failed. In all cases, the lawmaker’s change cannot affect the fate of the legislation.

Assembly members in California are among the most aggressive in exercising that option, frequently adding their vote to bills that were taken up while they were not on the floor or changing their votes after the final tally has been announced in the chamber.

The practice is bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats taking advantage of the rules. California lawmakers switched their votes or added their name after the total vote was read aloud in the chamber at least 419 times in January and February, according to a review by The Associated Press. The vast majority were Assembly members who added their votes after a bill had already passed or failed.

The vote-switching and vote-adding is allowed only in the 80-member Assembly. The 40-member Senate allows it only for the Democratic and Republican leaders, but it is seldom exercised.

For some lawmakers, changing or adding votes after the fate of a bill has been decided provides political cover or helps varnish their official record when they were afraid or unwilling to take a stand on legislation while it was being debated.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said both practices are troubling because they let lawmakers off the hook from making difficult decisions and make it hard for ordinary voters to keep track of their representatives’ actions. Vote changes and additions are listed separately in a daily file of legislative proceedings, but not on the official Assembly or Senate websites, where bills are tracked and the final votes are recorded.

Those who add votes “might as well be absent,” Scheer said. “Your vote is superfluous. It’s worse than superfluous, because you’re only adding it when it’s safe, and you’re wasting your constituents’ time.”

The group did its own study of legislative vote-switching a year ago.

“The most innocent and innocuous situations are due to stupidity, and the rest are due to duplicity,” Scheer said of changing votes after the fate of a bill has been determined.

The practice caught the ire of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called out two Assembly lawmakers in 2010 for making vote switches that he said were purely political.

Schwarzenegger slammed fellow Republicans Jeff Miller and Dan Logue for opposing public-employee pension reforms after they had publicly supported them — then later adding their yes votes in the official record of the successful bill. He said the lawmakers were afraid to cross the powerful prison guards union, which is a generous donor to candidates of both parties.

Schwarzenegger expressed his frustration with the practice during one of his weekly YouTube addresses.

“Not only did they try to block reform, but they did not even have the courage to publicly stand behind their action,” he said. “See, they were worried when they go back to their district that maybe people will find out that they sided with labor rather than with the taxpayers.”

Miller, of Corona, has added his vote to legislation after it left the floor 31 times so far in 2012, more than any other member of the Assembly. His Capitol staff did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Logue said he held off voting on the 2010 pension legislation because it was changed at the last minute and he was concerned that Schwarzenegger’s plan included some unions and not others. He said the governor threatened to embarrass Republicans who did not support it.

“For me to walk out and vote on a bill that I didn’t even have a chance to read is absurd,” said Logue, who is from Linda. “I did vote for it in the end because I felt it was a step in the right direction.”

Some lawmakers who are among the most prolific users of the vote-change and vote-adding rules defended the practice. They said they often don’t have adequate time to read legislation before they are asked to vote on it or use the rule as a tactic to work with other lawmakers.

“Sometimes people are holding out to see if (the bills) pass or not; some people are holding out because they’re mad at them (the author); some people want them to vote on their bills before they vote on their bill,” said Democratic Assemblyman Tony Mendoza of Artesia. “Sometimes it’s very political.”

Mendoza has added his vote to bills after they had passed or failed 17 times so far this year, the sixth-highest number in the Assembly. He said he often waits to add votes because lawmakers are making revisions until the last minute.

“Some bills, I don’t even want to vote on. I don’t like them,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t feel good about it, but the author wants you to add on to it because it makes it look good when it goes to the Senate side.”

While lawmakers in the California Assembly generally give blanket acceptance to their colleagues to engage in the practice, legislators in at least nine other states that allow vote changes or adds do not appear to use it so liberally. The other states are Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, Utah and Texas.

Most of the other legislative houses allow lawmakers time to change their votes or delay votes before the final tally is announced, but few lawmakers make changes after the vote is recorded.

In Ohio, lawmakers became so concerned about the number of altered votes that they changed their rules a decade ago to make it more difficult.

The Ohio House prohibited a practice similar to that used in California, in which representatives are allowed to change their votes by the end of the day’s business. The practice was changed after it became so widespread that lawmakers and the media frequently were unsure about the vote totals, said former House Clerk Laura Clemens.

Since the crackdown, the House must vote to reconsider the entire bill for lawmakers to change their position, something that is seldom done.

In California, votes are added much more than they are changed, but some lawmakers from both parties do so regularly.

Democrat Norma Torres of Pomona was the only member of the Assembly to vote against a bill giving the state controller more oversight over local government auditing procedures before she switched her vote on AB1345 from no to yes on Jan. 26.

On that day, there were 216 vote additions and changes in the state Assembly.

On Jan. 30, three Democrats asked to have their vote switched to “not voting” on a contentious three-strikes bill that would require the third conviction to be a serious or violent felony to qualify for a penalty of 25 years-to-life in prison. After the bill, AB327, failed, Democratic Assembly members Luis Alejo of Watsonville, Joan Buchanan of Alamo and Betsy Butler of Marina del Ray changed their “yes” votes to “no” or “not voting.” The bill passed the following day with votes from Alejo and Butler, but not Buchanan.

The First Amendment Coalition found 86 instances of vote-switching during a review of the practice from August 2010 through March 2011. The coalition did not study vote additions.

It found that Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R- Dana Point, changed her vote the most, nine times, on everything from increasing the fine for failing to repair an air bag (yes to no) to establishing standards for tattoo parlors (no to yes).

Among other notable vote changes was one in 2010 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who changed her vote from yes to no on a bill that placed a state spending cap measure on the ballot. The spending cap was opposed by Democrats but was pushed by Republican lawmakers and Schwarzenegger as a condition for agreeing to a budget deal that year.

Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, said he routinely holds off votes and adds them later — as he has done 25 times this year — because Democrats who control the Assembly do not tell lawmakers in advance which bills will be taken up. Many are not even in print when lawmakers are asked to vote on them, he said.

“It is out of pure frustration with the process and the inability to hear what the bills actually do or what they’re going to do when they go to the Senate,” he said. “... I’m not going to make a fast, irrational vote just because they want to rush it through on the floor.”

Jeffries said after the official votes are taken, he seeks out legislative staff or other lawmakers for a more detailed explanation of the bills, then adds his vote. He said he was shocked at the last-minute nature of the process after serving on local government bodies that are required to post agendas three days in advance, which gives officials time to ask questions before they vote.

He has proposed two laws he said would clean up the system, one that would require all bills to be in print before lawmakers are asked to vote on them and another that would require all voting take place between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., preventing the late-night sessions in which hundreds of bills are sometimes rammed through just before a deadline, some of them still hot from the printer.

Jeffries said lawmakers have refused to take up those proposals.

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