How Sausages Really Get Made

The general belief of most persons not directly involved in law making is that legislation is created through weighty public policy determinations. 

Months, perhaps years, of laborious scrutiny lead to flawlessly modulated funding formulas, equitable staffing ratios and intricate program redesign. 

 Not unlike so many other things in life, the truth is far different. 

My long-time colleague at the Chronicle, Rob Gunnison, was fond of saying, “No matter how petty you think it is, it’s even pettier.” 

Good advice. 

All too often, vexing problems get resolved with a coin flip because they’re so vexing that’s the only way to resolve them.  Sometimes a major policy change occurs for reasons completely unrelated to the policy. 

Paul Curry, the long-time lobbyist for the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department, tells a story about attending a seminar after the passage of the overhaul of California’s asset forfeiture law back in the days of Dan Lungren’s first term as Attorney General. 

With excruciating detail, the speaker was explaining the rationale and which led Californian’s solons to earmark 35 percent of any forfeited assets for treatment of substance abuse. 

Curry burst out laughing. He knew better than anyone why it was 35 percent. 

In 1993, crusty San Francisco Democrat John Burton, then an Assemblyman, carried legislation sharply restricting the ability of law enforcement to seize property without first convicting the property owner of a crime. 

Proceeds from asset forfeiture would no longer be used to lard the budget of law enforcement agencies. Instead, the money would pay for substance abuse treatment. 

Lungren opposed the bill. Senate GOP Leader Ken Maddy of Fresno carried law enforcement’s water in the Legislature. 

The loss of asset forfeiture revenue to balance or beef up their budgets was the biggest concern of local law enforcement. Their lobbyists tried, unsuccessfully, to cajole Burton into allowing some of the assets to be used for general fund spending. 

Finally, Al Cooper, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department lobbyist, convinced Burton to split the assets – 50 percent for treatment, 50 percent for law enforcement. 

After leaving Burton’s office, Cooper ran into Curry and told him of his success. “Good,” Curry said, “I’ll go in and see if I can get it down to 25 percent.” 

Bad idea. 

Burton unleashed a verbal Vesuvius. Paint flaked from the walls. Cracks appeared in the plaster. Lava foamed over Curry’s wing-tips. 

Fifty percent was as low as Burton said he was willing to go (Insert expletive here) and if Curry and his (Colorful metaphor) ilk even broached the possibility of going lower Burton vowed to restore the 100 percent for treatment and Curry and his cop buddies could go be fruitful and multiply, so to speak. 

Remarkably, Curry left Burton’s office under his own power. 

Later, Burton called an off-the-floor committee hearing to consider his bill – always a good strategy to lower the profile of a controversial measure and potentially slip one over on the opponents.  

It didn’t work on Curry. He dutifully appeared at the hearing and testified as to the bill’s myriad flaws not least of which was the 50 percent split. Curry said his clients would be far happier if the share for treatment was reduced to 10 percent . 

Burton went to DefCon4. Epithet after epithet rained down on Curry. Sergeants-at-arms moved sharp objects out of Burton’s reach. The committee voted. The bill passed. Curry beat a hasty retreat. 

Within two hours, Burton had tracked Curry down to apologize for chewing him out in committee. 

“I shouldn’t have done that,” Burton said. “It’s 35 percent.” 

Former Assemblyman John Quimby recalls during Reagan’s first term the Legislature was grappling with reconfiguring the state’s mental health system. 

As part of the deal, Reagan wanted to close some mental hospitals – a highly political process bound to anger plenty of legislators. 

In the basement of Reagan’s Sacramento home in the Fabulous Forties was a pool table. A group of lawmakers was being entertained by Reagan. 

“We were kidding him about wanting to close the hospitals and somebody suggested we play a game of pool and each guy who got a ball in a certain pocket could save one of the mental hospitals in their district,” Quimby recalls. 

“It sounds crazy but that’s what we did. I won Patton Hospital (in San Bernardino). That game turned out to be one of the reasons a hospital was or was not closed.” 

Former GOP Senator Bill Campbell tells a similar story about when he carried a 1972 measure recasting Medi-Cal, California’s health are system for the poor. 

Negotiating for the administration was Earl Brian, Reagan’s health department director and, later, Health and Human Services cabinet secretary. 

The most contentious part of the bill was whether Medi-Cal patients had to kick in a co-payment. Campbell recalls Reagan wanting $2 and Democrats wanting zero. 

Campbell’s bill was being heard in Assembly Ways and Means, chaired at the time by Willie Brown. Brown said the question of a co-pay would be put over briefly. He handed the gavel to the GOP vice-chair, Frank Lanterman, and left. 

Brian, Campbell and Brown went to then Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti’s office to hash out the issue.  

After a goodly amount of back-and-forth, Moretti said he would arm wrestle Brian over the co-pay. Campbell warned Brian not to. 

Brian assured Campbell everything was fine. What Campbell didn’t know was that Brian had been one of the top amateur tennis players in the country. 

“They set up and he put Bobby down. Bobby says, ‘Two out of three.’ Brian put him down again. Bobby says, ‘OK, you’ve got your co-payment.’” 

The three returned to Ways and Means. Brown announced that the co-payment would be included, without objection. 

See there really is a reason for that warning about watching sausage being made. 



Filed under: Venting

1 Comment »

  1. Good One

    Comment by DL — 4.03.2008 @ 4:09 am

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