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Not All Power is Equal: How Soft & Hard Power Influences Economic Justice

In 2016, Courage California launched an annual legislative scorecard called Courage Score: The People’s Report Card — a tool designed to help Californians learn about how their elected representatives in the State Assembly and Senate cast their votes on key progressive bills. The scorecard reveals how often legislators stand up for constituents over corporate lobbyists, people over profits 

Legislators can wield their power in Sacramento in two main ways: through “hard power” (their votes on record) and “soft power” (their maneuvers outside of votes). Our Courage Score is calculated from legislators’ votes — how they wield their hard power — and we know that this alone cannot provide the complete picture of how a legislator works. Legislators sit on and chair committees (assembly/senate), hold leadership positions (Senate Pro Tem or Assembly Speaker), work in caucuses, and lobby their fellow legislators behind the scenes to support and kill bills. Recently, Assembly Speaker Rendon (representing Southeast Los Angeles County) formalized a rule that gives Committee Chairs the power to decide whether or not their committee will hear bills to consider for a vote, a rule that has been in place in the senate for a few years. Many Committee Chairs have begun to abuse this power, refusing to hear bills to avoid voting on record. These are all ways that legislators wield “soft” power outside of their actual voting (“hard”) power.

This Courage Score blog series is a way for us to start to shed more light on how legislators wield their soft power to tip the scales towards communities or corporations and how it connects to their hard power. 

Economic Justice

Economic justice, a priority issue for Courage California, is a model for building economic institutions that create equal opportunity for all to live prosperous, dignified, and creative lives beyond economics. Right now more than a third of Californians are living in near poverty. We live in a state that has the fifth largest economy in the world, but the vast majority of residents, who are responsible for that economic generation, don’t share in the wealth. Instead it goes to already wealthy individuals and corporations, and we face widening gaps of income, food security, housing, and much more. That’s why Courage and our partners across the state advocate for legislation that will ease the economic burden on working Californians by advocating for progressive taxation of corporations and the rich.

Assembly Committee on Revenue and Taxation

The Assembly Committee on Revenue and Taxation investigates, studies, and votes on any bills that would amend California’s Revenue and Taxation Codes. Any bill that would ease part of the economic burden on working Californians by making sure that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes must go through this committee at some point in the bill’s legislative journey. 

There are 11 Assemblymembers on the committee: Autumn Burke, Janet Nguyen, Adam Gray, Timothy Grayson, Marc Levine, Chad Mayes, Kevin Mullin, Cottie Petrie-Norris, Bill Quirk, Luz Rivas, and Kelly Seyarto

Assemblymember Burke is the current chair of the committee and has a Courage Score of 65 for her 2020 legislative votes. Her score does not reflect how progressive her district is, and so she joins our Hall of Shame for the first time since its launch. She has refused to hear or gutted bills in this committee over the past few years, which lines up with her voting record.

Our Economic Justice Problem

Corporations and special interests, like Big Real Estate, have too much influence over what bills even reach a vote. They spend millions each year to lobby on bills, and with the new committee chair rule, their influence gets even more concentrated on committee chairs, like Assemblymember Burke. This year Burke has told many advocates that she will not be hearing any bills, despite how the pandemic has disproportionately benefited the wealthy and created more hardships for low-income and working class families of color. She has not allowed bills like AB 310 (an annual wealth tax on those who make $50 million), AB 1253 (a tiered tax increase system on income above $1M), and AB 1199 (tax on corporate and wealthy landlords who profit off foreclosures) to be heard in her committee. That means they will never reach a floor vote with the full legislature. She has only set a hearing for one progressive tax bill, AB 71 — a corporate tax that would raise $2.4 billion a year to address homelessness in the state, carried by Courage All-Star Assemblymember Luz Rivas — that has already been heavily amended to only apply to foreign corporations. We all know more needs to be done to address the larger economic injustices in the state. Burke puts her own interests above Californians, at a time when wealth and corporate taxes have overwhelming support from voters — even wealthy voters!

Our Accountability Solution

State legislators need to hear from their own constituents in order for our government to work for the people. They need to be held accountable for their votes and their soft power maneuvers, and, at the end of the day, they need to get re-elected. Corporations and special interests have the advantage of a lot of money, but constituents and voters have the power of our voice and our vote. 

If you’re a constituent of Assemblymember Burke, you can call into or email her office and let her know that you support progressive taxation that increases taxes on corporations and the wealthy so that they pay their fair share. Let her know that working Californians shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the economic burden of living in a state with such vast resources and wealth. Those resources and wealth should be redistributed to those who have made California the 5th largest economy in the world — the workers. Urge her as the Assembly Revenue and Taxation Chair to set hearings for progressive taxation bills when they return next year.

To contact Assemblymember Burke:

Every year, we work to improve Courage California’s Courage Score with feedback from our partners and members like you. Leave us a comment on what else you’d like to see in Courage Score and our Courage Score blog series. 

If you want to contact your own State Senator and State Assemblymember, we have email templates to do so on their individual Courage Score profile pages. Don’t know who your legislators are? No problem — just type your address into the Courage Score home page, and we’ll find them for you!