Democrats and Republicans in the California Legislature have once again broadcast this troubling fact: They are far more concerned about the ever-expanding demands of a relatively small group of public sector union members than they are about the public welfare of the citizens of our state.
On May 17, the state Assembly voted 68-0 to support the most despicable piece of legislation that's come through the halls in a while, which is saying a lot given the foolhardy proposals routinely on display in Sacramento. (It still requires approval by the Senate and the governor.)
The bill, AB 2299, allows a broad swath of public officials—police, judges, and various public safety officials—to hide their names from public property records. It is based on the unproven notion that criminals use such records to find the homes of law enforcement officers, then track them down to commit harm. This could theoretically happen, but even the most overheated advocates of the bill can't point to specific instances. Lots of things can happen, theoretically.
The Sacramento Bee editorial page, hardly a font of anti-government-worker thinking, made the obvious point: "None of the testimony presented in committee indicated criminals seeking to harm law enforcement officials actually got information about where their targets lived from property records. Most just followed them home from work."
The state is about to destroy the most significant source of public records, and create an open invitation to fraud and theft in order to combat a phantom threat. The bill was introduced by a legislator who ought to know better, Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). Not long ago, Feuer argued that openness is the key to stopping abuse in his city's terminally troubled children's court system, but now he is the champion of secrecy.
"AB 2299 would bar journalists and the public from investigating the situation unfolding in Los Angeles where the assessor is accused of collecting campaign contributions from property owners in exchange for lowered property assessments," wrote the California Newspaper Publishers Association's Jim Ewert in a letter to Feuer. "The bill would completely insulate and protect any public safety official who might be involved in this type of scheme … ."
Public officials and their family members will be able to hide their identities, which will undermine the reliability of property transactions. Dirty officials will pull off real estate scams without scrutiny. If an assessor did mistakenly release a record, those officials could receive financial judgments paid by the taxpayers. As the Bee asked, "If names are redacted, could law enforcement officials prevent their estranged wives or husbands from asserting a legitimate legal interest in the property?" The property system will become far less reliable. Buyers will be less able to guarantee that the title they receive is free and clear.
What a mess we are creating, and all because union officials are constantly pushing for new and expanded privileges for their members, and because legislators never have the courage to say no. Law enforcement advocates constantly trumpet the dangers their members face, but they often exaggerate such dangers. They ignore that many other people who work outside government face dangers, too. Bail bondsmen face potential dangers from criminals, as do various attorneys and average citizens going about their lives. It's not right to bolster the idea that public officials are members of a separate caste with rights and protections that exceed those enjoyed by the citizenry at large.
It's fundamental to our democratic society that government officials are held to the same standards as the rest of us. Yet we see many scandals involving public officials, many crimes committed by duly sworn officers. Do we really need yet another privilege that exempts "them" from the standards that apply to the rest of "us."
One can be sure that the number of protected categories will expand rapidly and quietly. Even the original list is fairly broad. Within weeks, lobbyists for other public-sector unions will insist that code enforcers, billboard inspectors, and milk testers receive the same protections given the dangers these officials supposedly face. If you think I'm overstating this, then consider that the latter categories made that same argument to gain expanded "public safety" pensions.
Many officials will abuse this, just as police and their families routinely abuse the "professional courtesy" granted by other officers to evade traffic tickets and DUIs. In 2008, the Orange County Register published an investigation about a special license plate program "designed 30 years ago to protect police from criminals, [that] has been expanded to cover hundreds of thousands of public employees—from police dispatchers to museum guards—who face little threat from the public. Their spouses and children can get the plates, too. This has happened despite warnings from state officials that the safeguard is no longer needed because updated laws have made all DMV information confidential to the public."
The newspaper found that these public servants often run red lights and drive on toll roads without paying the tolls because the agencies cannot access the addresses, which are in a protected database. When these scofflaw government employees are pulled over by police officers, the newspaper reported, they often are let go with a warning because their protected plate status signals that they are part of the law enforcement fraternity. After the Register article, the Legislature actually voted to expand the number of categories of employee eligible for the program.
Now this two-tier craziness will expand to our property ownership system, undermining public records and allowing corrupt public employees to exploit other people. We know from history that free and open societies are the ones least susceptible to corruption. Yet the California Assembly has decided to cast aside those time-tested lessons and put the demands of unions above the needs of the public. So what else is new?
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.