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How state Assembly members change, add their votes on certain bills

Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 6:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 8:26 a.m.

Assemblyman Wes Chesbro voted to bar California hunters from using dogs to track bears or bobcats before the Arcata Democrat reversed himself and voted again to allow the controversial practice.

Assemblyman Michael Allen voted to support a bill that would have potentially raised the $250,000 cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases. The Santa Rosa Democrat later changed his position so that the official record now shows that he did not vote on the bill.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, did not change any of his votes this year. But he added his vote 144 times after the outcome of the legislation was decided.

The three North Coast lawmakers were included in an Associated Press analysis that revealed that state Assembly members made 5,000 vote changes or additions during this year's legislative session.

The practice, while legal, is decried by critics as a way for lawmakers to play politics with their votes or hide their true positions on the issues.

"Your initial vote is really your heart. Then you get lobbied by people, and being allowed to go back and change your vote is duplicitous," said Barbara O'Connor, emeritus professor of communications and director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at CSU Sacramento.

"It leads to non-profiles in courage," she added.

All lawmakers in California's 80-member Assembly are allowed to change or add votes an unlimited number of times after the fate of a bill has been decided, as long as it does not change whether a bill passes or fails. The state Senate allows such changes only by the Democratic and Republican leaders in that house.

O'Connor said the practice is a "courtesy to members, and it shouldn't be."

In addition to his vote change on hunting with hounds, Chesbro also reversed his position on bills that would have given the media greater access to California prisoners and another that provides $200 million in tax credits over two years for motion pictures and TV programs produced in California.

Chesbro voted "no" on the bills after he initially voted "yes."

Chesbro added his "yes" votes after the fact to two of the most contentious bills this year -- AB1761, which is related to California's health care change as part of the federal health care overhaul, and AB1707, which will allow certain people who had been designated as child abusers when they were minors to have their names removed from a state registry.

He also supported, after the fact, a bill that was supported by teachers' unions and would have prevented schools from including students' test scores on their ID cards.

Chesbro, who is seeking re-election, did not respond to messages Wednesday seeking comment.

Allen's press aide, David Miller, said the assemblyman was unavailable for comment Wednesday because Allen was "at meetings, events and other things of that nature all day."

Allen has not made himself available to The Press Democrat for more than a month. He is seeking re-election in a newly drawn assembly district that includes all of Marin County, part of Santa Rosa and portions of western and southern Sonoma County.

Allen changed course on legislation that allows the state to garnish local tax revenue if it believes governments are keeping too much money formerly dedicated to redevelopment.

Allen initially voted against the bill before changing his vote to support it. That places him at odds with the League of California Cities, which is suing the state over the legislation.

"The shifting of sales tax and property tax away from cities and giving them to other taxing entities within the county, we believe that to be unconstitutional," said Patrick Whitnell, the league's general counsel.

Allen also voted for and then against legislation that allows state and regional water control board members to communicate directly with stakeholders over such matters as the issuing of stormwater permits. Advocates say the legislation will bring more transparency to the permit process.

Huffman, who is running for Congress, said he agrees with people who criticize legislators for changing their votes or for meeting with lobbyists during floor sessions, a practice that he said "frankly should be illegal."

"There are members who delay their votes purposefully so they can wait to talk to lobbyists and then decide how to vote. It's unfortunate, but I have several colleagues who do that," he said.

Huffman said his 144 add-on votes, which were more than twice the average rate among lawmakers, were not about politics or trying to conceal his record, but the result of his busy schedule.

"It was because I was working my bills on the Senate floor, or chairing a committee, or doing other legislative business. I was not playing politics," he said.

Huffman added votes 83 times in April and May, more than half his total for the year.

David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University, speculated that was because Huffman was busy campaigning ahead of the June 5 primary, which Huffman won.

"I think it's unfair to categorize him as changing his vote," McCuan said. "Technically that's correct, but he's going on the record for votes he missed."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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