Fiona Ma’s clueless words echo Richardson book on politics 

Bill Richardson was a very conservative Republican state senator from Southern California who single-handedly changed the political dynamics of his house.

For decades, Senate leaders adhered to an unwritten understanding that they would never challenge incumbent senators of the other party.

Richardson — a former advertising man and a pioneer user of campaign technology — rebelled at the nonaggression pact and sponsored challengers who unseated three liberal Democratic senators in 1976, 1978 and 1980.

While he was doing all of that, Richardson wrote a humorous little book called “What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?” that remains one of the most insightful accounts of Capitol dynamics. One of its points was that legislators rarely read, and often don’t understand, the measures on which they vote.

Richardson’s book about how bills pass and fail comes to mind because of something that occurred recently at a Capitol news conference.

Just before this year’s session ended, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed an overhaul of corporate taxation that he said would encourage California-based businesses to invest more in the state while eliminating an unfair tax advantage for out-of-state firms.

It would have reversed a corporate tax law passed just two years earlier.

Naturally, reporters pressed Brown and the Democratic legislators on why they were doing such a turnaround. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said it was because the 2009 bill was passed with “a gun to our heads” by Republicans as part of a budget deal that included tax increases.

But Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, said the 2009 bill was “drafted incorrectly,” thereby implying that she and others didn’t know what they were doing when they voted for it.

That was patently false since everyone, as Steinberg acknowledged, knew the implications of the tax measure. If Ma didn’t know, she was the only one. But when a reporter zeroed in and asked her point-blank whether she didn’t know what the 2009 bill did, Brown came to her rescue.

“I want to step in here,” the governor said, figuratively leaping in front of the bullet. “Trying to discern the motives of those legislators who created this is a fool’s errand because they all have a different story.”

Brown’s measure, incidentally, didn’t make it. Legislators knew what it did, and not enough of them liked it.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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