In California, Is September the Most Corrupt Month?

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April is the cruelest month. Is the September the most corrupt?

It's hard to say, given the squirrely nature of data on corruption. But it's clear that an unfortunate intersection of California's legislative and election calendars makes September a month for potential corruption and influence peddling.

Here's the problem.

With the legislative session ending in late August or early September (this year it was Aug. 31), most bills go to the governor to sign during the month of September.

At the same time the governor is considering bills, the election season is in full swing. Indeed, September is now the final stretch of the election season, since a California election, in the era of the mail ballot, is no longer a day but nearly an entire month of voting, beginning in the first half of October.

So a governor must decide on bills that can be very important to moneyed interests at the same time those interests are donating to and participating in candidate campaigns and initiative campaigns of great conseqeuence to the governor.

Indeed, governors have to use the initiative process, given the inflexibility of California's system, as Gov. Jerry Brown is doing this year with Prop 30.

Brown's aides have said he will evaluate bills on the merits. But that assurance isn't enough.

Brown would be inhuman not to feel the pressure of the initiative campaign as he signs bills -- since he'll be juggling both tasks. And as a professional politician, he'd be foolish not to consider tradeoffs between signing or rejecting a bill on its merits, and making a decision that would help his much more important initiative campaign. 

And even if Brown manages to keep bill signing and electoral politics completely separate, it would be almost impossible for him to avoid the perception that he might signing or not signing something to appease some important interest playing politics.

That's sure to be a problem for his initiative campaign and for voters. After all, it's hard enough to understand a complicated measure like Prop 30 on its own; it's even harder when the public debate throws in assorted bills and pensions and other issues into the mix.

So, instead of beating up the governor, we'd be wise to think hard about changing the legislative calendar, the election calendar, or both to prevent nasty collisions in the intersection that is September. One possibility would be to end the legislative session much earlier in the year -- and bring back the legislature routinely after elections to handle unfinished business. (This also might also protect August from corruption -- a dangerous time when legislators hold fundraisers and make last-minute decisions on bills at the same time).

An even better solution would be to adopt a new election calendar that separates initiatives from candidate campaigns.

Let elections for election officials take place on the normal calendar. But spread the votes on initiatives, like Brown's Prop 30, throughout the year -- maybe every month -- so that those measures are considered separately. And make sure that those initiative campaigns don't intersect with bill signing.

Otherwise, we're bound to be talking about corruption, influence -- and the possibility of same -- all September.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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