As year ends, California lawmakers are graded by the people who might count the most: interest groups

California legislators take hundreds of votes every year in Sacramento. But only a handful are used by
powerful interest groups in giving out grades that can play a big part in any reelection campaign.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

December 24, 2017

There were 2,980 bills introduced and debated in the California Legislature in 2017, a bumper crop of proposals and symbolic, formal resolutions. But in raw political terms, some bills mattered more than others.

And this is the time of year it becomes clear that politically powerful interest groups were keeping score.

More than a dozen organizations assign a grade to each member of the state Senate and Assembly, distributed on an annual scorecard. Some assessments have already been published; others will be released in early 2018. It’s important to call them what they really are: an electoral litmus test, one that fuels campaign donations and is later splashed across mail sent to voters — “Jane Smith is a champion/destroyer of the environment,” for example. It can be effective for voters who have little other information on the job their legislator has been doing in Sacramento.

That kind of political impact is why lawmakers lavish so much attention on these annual performance reviews. It’s hard to find a member of the Legislature who doesn’t know how he or she stacks up. It’s part of what makes some interest groups so powerful — from Planned Parenthood to the National Rife Assn., organized labor and beyond.

The Sierra Club of California released its scorecard in October with an explanation of how the bills in question were chosen. “The selection is based on factors that include a bill’s overall importance to the state’s environmental quality, the precedent it sets for good or bad impacts, and the bill’s importance to fulfilling the Club’s mission.”

Fifty members of the Assembly voted with the Sierra Club a majority of the time, as did 27 members of the Senate. Those are impressive numbers, a reminder of why environmental advocates begin most state Capitol debates with a real advantage. No Republicans came out with a high score, and a few of the Legislature’s business aligned “moderate” Democrats also received a lukewarm grade.

The scorecard of the California Chamber of Commerce, on the other hand, found fewer kindred souls. Only 15 state senators — two of them Democrats — voted with the business group most of the time.

In the Assembly, the list totaled 30 of the chamber’s 80 members with Democrats holding five of those spots.

Other groups find even less support. Just 39 of the state’s 120 legislators received a grade of “D” or better from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., frequent critics of new tax or spending proposals. The group urged its members to review the grade and then “contact your legislator’s office to express your support or concern.”

A majority of lawmakers received high marks in 2017 from two powerful law enforcement groups — the California Police Chiefs Assn. and the California District Attorneys Assn. The bills on their list included the expanded use of search warrants and defeating a plan to allow “safe injection” sites for drug users. These grades can send a strong message about who is “tough” or “soft” on crime and punishment.

Scorecards also make note of lawmakers doing nothing at all. Those who abstain — refusing to cast a vote either way — can get credit from a group that hated the bill, or scorn from a group that sees the abstention as tantamount to voting “No.”

Its popularity notwithstanding, there’s a danger in relying too much on a scorecard. It is, after all, a subjective list of bills that too easily becomes the justification for who’s doing his or her job and who isn’t. The politics of interest groups may be key to winning an election, but they aren’t always synonymous with effective governing.