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Our View: Election industry doing just fine, thanks to District 4

Our View
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What costs nearly $2 million, has taxpayers fuming and leaves much of the Sierra foothills without representation on the home court? No, it’s not the Sacramento Kings’ latest attempt to leverage a new arena. It’s the ongoing saga to fill the open District 4 Assembly slot in the state Legislature. Last week’s election to fill the vacancy left by Ted Gaines’ move to the state Senate went just about as planned — turnout was poor, costs were high and two candidates will move on to yet another election, this one to finally decide who will serve the remaining 18 months of Gaines’ Assembly seat. It was interesting that a Democrat, Dennis Campanale of Roseville, garnered the most votes and advances to the May 3 runoff against Gaines’ wife, Beth Gaines. Beth Gaines and current Roseville City Councilman John Allard waged a nasty, negative campaign battle in the weeks leading up to the election. The vote will be certified March 21. What wasn’t so interesting was the bill that landed on the collective table of taxpayers. More than $650,000 will be spent on ballots, collection and counts for the March 8 election, or about $15.85 for each of the 41,000 votes cast in Placer County alone. Add that to similar costs for the Jan. 3 election that sent Ted Gaines to the Senate, and the upcoming May vote, and the total election bill comes to about $2 million. Whether Beth Gaines wins the Assembly seat — a pretty good bet given the Republican majority in the district —or Campanale pulls off the upset, that seven-figure investment will bring an inexperienced lawmaker into the pressure cooker of the state budget, with emotions and partisanship likely boiling over just as one of them is trying to find the bathroom. District 4 has been without an Assembly member since the start of the year. While other legislators have been polling their constituents and, presumably, representing their districts, much of Placer, El Dorado and Alpine counties have no one in Assembly committees or subcommittees on their behalf. At a time when city and county leaders need their elected Assembly member to hear their concerns, the phone is silent. At a time when citizens need to share their views about slashed social services or education, or say that taxes are already too high, the District 4 office door is locked, the lights turned out – but taxpayers are still footing the bill to pay rent for the empty office space. So, additional election costs without an elected representative? Our founding fathers might have called this taxation without representation. Shortly after his Senate election, Ted Gaines introduced a bill to curb the cost of future special elections, allowing rural counties to conduct mail-only votes in special circumstances. El Dorado County election officials estimate it could save that county 17 percent, or $50,000 per special election. Given Placer County’s scope in size and voting locations, the savings could be much greater. It would have been really interesting if Gaines had introduced and passed his bill while he was in the Assembly, perhaps saving taxpayers $350,000 or more in 2011. Given California’s fiscal emergency, Secretary of State Debra Bowen should step in and ask the District 4 counties if they would like to hold mail-only elections on May 3. Saving 17 percent on $650,000 might only be $110,000, but that money could be used much more efficiently than $15.85 per counted ballot. Another option would be to wait a couple of weeks and see if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax extension vote lands on the June 7 ballot. If so, the counties could share election costs with the state, while drawing a much larger turnout. Just when you thought California had stopped inventing new ways to waste money, it apparently has come up with another one.