SACRAMENTO (AP) — One of the week's most anticipated legislative hearings in the Capitol focused on the various tax-related initiatives on the November ballot, including the tax increase championed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers.
As is routine with such high-profile hearings, it was scheduled to be broadcast on the main public access channel so those who could not attend in person still could watch the testimony.
Yet just before the hearing started Wednesday, the Senate leader's office ordered The California Channel, which broadcasts daily events in the statehouse, not to air the hearing, pulling the plug on lobbyists, journalists and others who were interested in seeing the proceedings.
The action has created something of a tempest in the Capitol, with the Senate president pro tem being criticized for blocking public access to an important hearing and the committee chairwoman strongly denouncing the actions of a fellow Democrat.
Rhys Williams, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said the Sacramento Democrat's office opted to stop the video feed out of fear that it might become political fodder for both supporters and critics of the ballot initiatives.
"This was quite clearly an opportunity for both sides for political grandstanding, rather than for an informational hearing, and we didn't feel it was appropriate for Senate resources to be used in that way," he said.
Reporters and others still were able to listen to an online audio feed of the hearing if they knew to go to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee's web page to do so, but there is no archived recording of the program, as is typical for such hearings.
Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis, who chairs the committee and, like Steinberg, is a Democrat, condemned the Senate leader's actions.
"The decision not to broadcast the hearing was made by the President Pro Tempore's office without my knowledge or consent, or that of my staff," she said in a statement issued Friday. "I strongly disagree with the decision, as the hearing was held to fulfill a state-mandated discussion on the initiatives so as to inform the public."
The Assembly and Senate each have their own cameras operated by legislative staff, and legislative officials notify The California Channel ahead of time which meetings will be broadcast, said John Hancock, the station's president.
"We received a phone call from the Senate telling us that that television coverage was being pulled," he said. "... It was certainly not our decision."
Steinberg has not made a decision about whether his office will block future live feeds, but he remains committed to openness in legislative issues, Williams said.
Some advocates for transparency in government would like the Senate leader to promise not to pull a similar move in the future.
"We count on the press to tell us what we missed, but they can't if it's cut off," said Peter Scheer, executive director at the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based organization dedicated to advancing free speech and open government. "The only possible justification for ever turning off that video feed would be for security concerns of a very strong kind."
Scheer rejected the concern expressed by Steinberg's office about public resources being used for political gain.
"You could say the same thing about literally everything that the Legislature does," he said. "If it's being broadcast, it's fodder for partisans to use."
Steinberg also has been on the defensive about Proposition 63 after The Associated Press reported last month that tens of millions of dollars raised had gone to programs for people who had not been diagnosed with any mental illness, including yoga classes, acupuncture and horseback riding. He was one of the main supporters of the 2004 ballot initiative, which raised taxes on millionaires to fund mental health programs.
On Thursday, Steinberg invited two dozen reporters to come to his office or participate in a conference call to give his take on how the state spends money raised through the initiative. The AP was not invited, nor was the San Jose Mercury News, which published a story last year that aired criticism of how Proposition 63 dollars have been spent.
Williams said that was because his office could not find an AP health reporter.
"There's no way there was any intention that we were blacklisting any publications," he said.
In response to the AP story, two lawmakers this week requested an independent audit of Proposition 63 spending.