A funny thing happens on the way to the state Legislature. Once senators or assembly members get to Sacramento, all those constituents they talked issues with at Rotary lunches are suddenly muscled out of their schedules by lobbyists and special interest groups.
So what's a lawmaker to do?
Assembly Member Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), a practicing attorney, has opted to hold a contest, called There Ought to Be a Law. It invites constituents to submit ideas for new legislation to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. This year's winner, Daniel Hall of Santa Clara, suggested that California driver's licenses double as veteran ID cards. AB 531 goes before the transportation committee this month.
"We try to find ways to get more civic interaction," says Wieckowski. "And it works. Last year we got 40 to 50 ideas."
At least three other California legislators currently offer similar contests, but Wieckowski credits former state Senator Joe Simitian (D-San Mateo) with the idea. "I started the contest in 2001 out of frustration in my first year in the Legislature," says Simitian, an attorney now serving as a Santa Clara County supervisor. "I saw so many interest groups and lobbyists and too few constituents."
Simitian says the contest, named after the syndicated, "There Oughta Be a Law" comic he recalls from his youth, was a success for eleven years. "One year we had 460-plus submissions," he says. Twenty-one bills have become law.
Contest winners come from all walks of life, including Hayward tow-truck driver Daniel Leon. Leon proposed "move over, slow down" laws to protect tow trucks and emergency workers from passing vehicles at crime or accident scenes. The idea was selected in 2005 and passed in the Legislature, then vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. But after three California Highway Patrol officers were struck and killed during traffic stops and accidents, the bill was reintroduced the following year as Senate Bill 1610 and passed into law.
"The CHP did their three-year research and found it to make a difference," says Leon.