Scoring the California Legislature: Who Stood With Consumers In 2011?
By Zack Kaldveer
Consumer Federation of California
The Consumer Federation of California (CFC) released its 2011 Scorecard for State lawmakers today. The scorecard rates legislators on their votes cast on key consumer rights bills, including banning the sale of expired baby food and over-the-counter medicine, establishing a universal, "Medicare for All" health insurance program, prohibiting a prospective employer from using consumer credit reports in the hiring process, authorizing the Department of Insurance or Department of Managed Health Care to approve, modify or reject proposed health insurance or HMO premium rate increases, banning toxic bisphenol A (BPA) above safe levels from containers of food and beverages intended for consumption by children age three or younger, requiring development of a new smolder resistance standard, and enabling California consumers to purchase furniture that is not filled with toxic flame retardant chemicals, among others.
Average scores were 59 percent in the Senate (a 1 point increase from last year) and 65 percent in the Assembly (a six point increase from last year). The scorecard highlighted a deep ideological split between the two parties when it comes to consumer rights protections. Assembly Democrats had an average score of 93 percent (a six point increase from last year), with Senate Democrats averaging 83 percent (a 3 point drop from last year).
Assembly Republicans took the side of consumers just 13 percent of the time (a seven point increase from last year). Senate Republicans scored slightly better, garnering an anemic average score of 18 percent (a five point increase from last year).
In all, 11 out of the 25 Senate Democrats scored 100 percent and another 34 of the 52 Democrats in the Assembly earned a perfect score. In contrast, 22 of the 28 Republicans in the Assembly scored 17 percent or less, with 17 of those receiving a score of 8 or below. In the Senate, 10 of the 15 Republicans scored 22 percent or below, with three receiving scores of “0”.
Not all Democratic lawmakers received high marks. An informal caucus of corporate-friendly Democrats often joined their Republican colleagues to kill consumer protection bills. Six Assembly Democrats received grades of 77 percent or below, with four receiving poor or failing grades of 67 percent or less. In the Senate, seven Democratic Senators scored 67 percent or below, with three receiving dismal scores of 50 percent or less.
We hope this scorecard can help Californians evaluate whether their lawmakers voted on behalf of their interests when it comes to issues that affect their pocketbooks, privacy, and health and safety, but often get little news coverage.
Standout Lawmakers: Near Perfect Lifetime Pro-Consumer Records
There are a number of stand-out legislators that deserve special recognition as consumer champions. The following lawmakers have compiled career pro-consumer scores (2 years or more) of 98% or above.
In the State Assembly, those were:
Tom Ammiano - D: 100%
Julia Brownley - D: 98%
Mike Eng - D: 98%
Mike Feuer - D: 100%
Jared Huffman - D: 100%
Bonnie Lowenthal - D: 100%
Bill Monning - D: 100%
In the State Senate, those were:
Ellen Corbett - D: 100%
Lonnie Hancock - D: 99%
Mark Leno - D: 100%
Joe Simitian - D: 98%
Fran Pavley – D: 98%
In a very hopeful sign, an astonishing eleven freshman Democratic Assemblymembers garnered a perfect score. So the above list of consumer champions may be growing in the years to come.
“Scoring” The Governor
While there was a marked improvement in the State Assembly this year – particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle - the most significant change came in the support consumers received from our new Governor.
Our scorecard does not evaluate the Governor’s record on consumer protection legislation as many pro-consumer bills are killed in the legislature.
However, the 2011 end of session tally for Governor Jerry Brown stands at 33 signatures and four vetoes on CFC supported bills that made it as far as the governor’s desk. In Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final year in office he agreed with consumers on only ten of 27 bills that made it to his. Anyone still questioning whether voting still matters just got their answer: it does!
Going Forward: The Public Interest Versus Corporate Profit
The CFC witnesses first hand how our "pay to play" campaign system undermines the public interest, as one proposed consumer protection law after another is often crushed under a ton of corporate campaign contributions lavished on politicians of both parties. Name the industry - chemical, oil, pharmaceutical, insurance, banking - and you can rest assure they're swarming the state capitol with high priced lobbyists and big checkbooks to increase profit at your expense.
The recent Supreme Court Citizens United ruling allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns only adds to the odds stacked against the kinds of consumer protection laws truly needed from even being proposed, let alone passing the state legislature and being signed by the Governor.
But, and this is a big "but", we won the battles that we did this year because of a simple rule: organized people can still beat organized money. Every victory achieved was a direct result of building the kinds of broad public interest coalitions necessary - including health, environment, labor, senior and consumer advocates - to take on big money, and win. Moving forward, this same unified coalition - including the growing activism of the people - will be fundamental to our prospects of securing the kinds of rights, protections, and yes, justice, that all Californians deserve.
In many respects, and for many people, 2011 was a very difficult year. But, when Governor Brown’s solid record on consumer rights legislation is combined with the significantly higher scores achieved by the State Assembly this year, California consumers fared pretty well. Let's make 2012 even better.
Zack Kaldveer is the Communications Director of the Consumer Federation of California, a non-profit advocacy organization. Since 1960 CFC has testified before the California legislature annually on dozens of bills that affect millions of consumers. Zack also authors the blog Privacy Revolt!, which tackles the issues at the intersection of civil liberties and technology.