California state legislators write 29 codes:

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Those codes govern life in California. Additions or changes to codes require the approval of at least 63 people, which is a majority of each legislative body plus the governor.

Like all codes, California’s codes can develop bugs. Often those bugs are developed when legislators write code to signal something about themselves. Eg, in 1976 they wrote the “Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act” to signal toughness on crime. As the LA Times explains, that change in code reduced incentives for good behavior and to enter rehabilitation programs. Inmate population and recidivism soared. Four decades later the state made some changes but still struggles with excessive incarceration and spending. Fixes are hard when 63 people must agree to them — and even harder when beneficiaries of the existing code prefer the status quo. Not surprisingly, the 57,000 people employed by the California Corrections Department who together make up the biggest incarceration business in the country and collect >$8 billion in annual compensation and benefits prefer code that keeps that money coming.

The state’s Education Code is another example. Annual spending on California’s schools has grown $30 billion — 60 percent — since 2010 to $100 billion per year, but teachers have seen little of the increased spending, student performance remains poor, and several school districts — including Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento — are in such financial distress that strikes have taken place and layoff notices issued. Those problems are the result of bugs in the Education Code that, eg, permit money to be diverted from classrooms to the health insurance of retirees on Medicare and to provide automatic increases to pensions, force schools to determine layoffs by seniority rather than performance, grant permanent employment (tenure) after just 18 months, and make it difficult to dismiss under-performing teachers or to reward teachers based on performance, the subjects they teach, or for teaching in high need schools. All of those bugs could be fixed by the legislature and governor but not surprisingly, special interests prefer the status quo. So far this session only one reform bill is expected and even then to provide only a small fix. Meanwhile, some legislators seek to insert new bugs in order to signal fealty to special interests. Eg, one bill would ban Teach For America from some schools, an objective sought by government employee unions who want to monopolize school staffing.

Sometimes legislators use coding to signal virtue. Recently a legislator who characterized federal reduction of the estate tax as “obscene “ proposed a California version to take its place. Whatever one’s views of estate taxes, if reduction of such a tax may be characterized as “obscene,” then surely determinant sentencing, spending twice as much per year on prison employees as on California State University, or layoffs of teachers forced by retirement costs and determined by seniority may be characterized as “grotesque.” Yet neither that legislator nor any other has proposed fixes to those bugs.

Sometimes legislators write code to protect cronies from competition. Eg, the Business and Professions Code prevents nurse practitioners from ordering certain procedures and undertaking certain other tasks without the supervision of a physician, thereby reducing access to health care, increasing costs and limiting job opportunities. Fortunately this session a legislator has proposed a fix of which GFC is a supporter.

To be fair, a legislator who tries to fix codes faces not only the daunting task of convincing 62 others but vigorous opposition from special interests who profit from the status quo. Even an Abe Lincoln could not succeed in that atmosphere without support. The absence of support from outside the status quo largely explains the failure of legislators to address problems — and also the great opportunity associated with political philanthropy.

We’ve said it so many times our voices are hoarse. Legislators who try to do the right thing need regular financial support or they will fail. Whether it’s with GFC or another organization — and we’d be happy to guide you if you wish to set up your own bundling organization — you have to be a contributor to state legislators to offset the power of special interests.

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