Experience informs and shapes perspective. This is true for all people, including lawmakers.
A military veteran or business owner will approach problems differently than a community organizer or trial attorney.
California’s deadly and destructive wildfires have been blamed on global warming by dozens of politicians and journalists, from Governor Jerry Brown to the editorial boards of the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times. A common thread connecting these assertions are the backgrounds of the people making them: their experience is in law, letters and litigation, not forestry, farming, or even business or medicine.
California’s forest management professionals have warned of the mounting fire threat from the growing forest fuel load issue since the mid-1990s. But, politicians and policymaking bureaucrats, some of them in California with the rest ensconced 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., had other ideas: leave the forests alone to grow thick with underbrush and small trees while quickly trying to suppress any fires that do break out.
The resulting intense fires were predictable as was the blame-shifting by the policymakers at fault for pushing policies that kill people, burn homes and destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of valuable timber while releasing massive amounts of the very carbon dioxide they say they care about. In press conference, after tweet, after article, they claim that climate change caused the devastating fires, not their own policies that have virtually halted the active forest management practices needed to head off large wildfires.
Working to address these wrongheaded policies are two California lawmakers: a Democrat dentist and a Republican farmer. Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg) and Brian Dahle (R-Redding) are working together to prioritize $300 million annually for fire prevention drawn from the state's greenhouse gas reduction fund from which the largest budget priority to date has been the state's high-speed rail project at $1.3 billion.
“Governor Brown,” Wood said in a news release, “is arguably the country’s most outspoken advocate of combating climate change (and he) has to see that any progress we’ve made with our policies to reduce greenhouse gas has totally been canceled out by these fires. One major fire alone can release more carbon dioxide than all of California’s climate change programs can save in a year.”
With smoke from the fires harming air quality as far away as Texas, Wood further called for California’s Air Resources Board, “…to measure the emissions from wildfires.” Noting that “All other emissions are measured. Why not wildfires? Maybe they don’t want the answer?”
Assemblyman Wood’s passion to properly address the wildfire issue, rather than simply posture about climate change, is driven by grim experience: last year’s wildfires killed several of his constituents, leading him to use his dental expertise to volunteer at the morgue to identify remains burned beyond recognition.
Republican Assemblyman Dahle, who still works the land for a living, shares similar common sense experience with his Democrat colleague who represents the adjacent district to the west. Of California’s fire problem, Dahle, the Republican Leader in the State Assembly, is getting frustrated, saying that he’s “getting push-back” on fire prevention and fuel management proposals.
Dahle, whose fire-ravaged Northern California district is larger than some states, says that prescribed burns are needed for fuel management. “The number one factor,” Dahle asserts, “if we reduce the fuel, period, the fires won’t be as intense.”
While both Assemblymembers Wood and Dahle have private-sector jobs to return to after they leave office, that can’t be said of the majority of their colleagues in the legislature.
Some 61% of California lawmakers were government staffers, community or labor union organizers or have spent decades as professional politicians. Among majority Democrats who run both the Assembly and the Senate, the percentage jumps to 72% with a further 17% being trial attorneys. Only 10% of Democrats representing the people of California in the legislature were business owners, doctors, or farmers before being elected.
With their life experience tilted towards big government, it’s no wonder California lawmakers default to making sweeping claims about problems, proposing larger government as the solution, while ignoring proven common sense measures that truly address real problems such as wildfires.
By contrast, Texas, the second most-populous state after California, has a part-time legislature earning a salary of $7,200 a year vs. $107,241 in the Golden State and, unlike California, has no term limits. Republicans run both houses in the Texas legislature and fully 75% of them come from business, medicine or farming vs. 10% of their majority Democratic counterparts in California. Even the Democrats in Texas have a wider range of non-governmental, non-courtroom experience than their counterparts in California, with 29% hailing from business, medicine or farming—almost three times greater than in California.
We do live in a representative democracy—people are free to vote for whom they wish—but things seem out of whack when about 10% of California’s working age population works for federal, state or local government but 56% of majority Democrats are professional politicians, former political staffers, or bureaucrats.
This may explain why, as California burns, California’s lawmakers are proposing laws to criminalize the distribution of plastic straws, raise taxes, re-regulate the internet, and generally make it difficult to run a business while their legislative counterparts in Texas simply labor to make the state a better place to live—after all, the Texans know that after their 140-day, every-other-year legislative session ends, they have to return to their everyday lives and live with the laws they passed.
That California’s legislative approach fosters fires while Texas’ fosters freedom may have something to do with the backgrounds of the lawmakers themselves.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on August 23, 2018.