Fruits and nuts in the Golden State

The “Choose California Act” was one of hundreds of Assembly bills volleyed into the Senate during the end-of-May frenzy before the deadline for legislation to leave its house of origin.


When it began its legislative life, the well-intentioned measure, AB 199, was eight paragraphs long. The bill sent to the Senate for its consideration on a 77-to-0 vote had been reduced to one, 30-word paragraph:


“All California state-owned or state-run institutions and all public universities, public schools and school districts in California are encouraged to purchase agricultural products grown in California to the extent possible.”

The press release by Assemblyman Chris Holden — a Pasadena Democrat serving his first term in the lower house — touting the lower house’s unanimous approval of his bill is five paragraphs long. Holden’s quote describing the measure’s impact runs 43-words:


“This bill would help introduce more Californians to the amazing variety of agricultural products grown in the state and help them develop the healthy habit of seeking out nutritious, affordable California-grown foods, which will have long-term benefits to farmers and the agricultural economy.”


Obviously, since it’s quoted above in its entirety, Holden’s bill doesn’t say what form this encouragement will take.


Perhaps a strongly worded memorandum to the procurement officers of California’s more than 1,000 school districts, various state agencies, 32 prisons, 10 UC campuses, 23 state universities and 112 community colleges. Or would the honey of a warm, handwritten note with hearts over the I’s and a pithy thought-for-today at the bottom be more encouraging? Certainly a more personal approach.


This encouragement doesn’t appear to take the form of financial inducement. In fact, the original eight-paragraph bill would have cost taxpayers more by requiring school districts and those state-run or state-owned entities to buy California agricultural products if “California grown products or the prices quoted for them do not exceed by more than 5 percent the lowest bids or prices quoted for products produced outside the state.”


While 5 percent doesn’t sound like much, there are 6 million kids in California public schools, 2.4 million community college enrollees, 235,000 University of California students, 436,000 state university pupils, 235,000 University of California students, some 125,000 prison inmates. When feeding a minimum of 9.5 million persons, 5 percent begins to add up.


However, in explaining why the measure’s scope and length was reduced, the Assembly Appropriations Committee analysis says buying California grown products at slightly higher prices would “likely” generate “significant costs in excess of $1 million.”


No source or methodology is offered for this vague appraisal. Is it closer to $1.01 million or $86 million? Both numbers are “significant” and “in excess” of $1 million.


The analysis seems to conclude that the greater expense is the personnel costs incurred by these public agencies to determine whether the California grown products were, in fact, 5 percent or less pricier than the out-of-state competition.


“Workload costs associated with monitoring the purchase of food, finding vendors that provide California food, ensuring that the quality is comparable to imported food and the cost is no more than 5 percent more than the cost of imported food would likely cost in excess of $5 million per year,” the committee analysis opines.


The analysis also says a “cursory review” was made of the food-buying practices of the California State University system. From that cursory review comes this revelation:


“Most of the produce purchased by the university is not only from out-of-state but from outside of the country. California grown produce tends to be limited to lettuce, broccoli and oranges. Given the amount of food purchased, the workload associated with implementing the provisions of this bill within the CSU system alone would be significant.”


Like “encouragement” in Holden’s legislation, the analysis is silent on what constitutes “significant.”


However tortuous the committee’s reasoning, its amendments left nothing but 30 words of not terribly rousing encouragement for California agencies to buy California agricultural products.


“If I had hair, I would have pulled it out,” Holden says facetiously of the haircut given his bill by the appropriations committee.


What little remains of AB 199 costs time and taxpayer dollars to move through legislative committees. That’s makes it a fairly pricey press release.


A 2010 Assembly bill encouraged California and its various public agencies to purchase fruits nuts and vegetables produced in the Golden State or produced and processed here only if the price was equal to or less than, imported fruits, nuts and vegetables.


That bill was three paragraphs long. Two paragraphs discussed the economic benefit for California of buying homegrown products. The third, most important paragraph was 54 words in length.


Despite — or perhaps because of  – its three-paragraph length, that bill went no further than the Senate Rules Committee, offering its author some fairly blunt encouragement to perhaps pursue other, more substantive, legislative efforts.

Ed’s Note: Greg Lucas, a writer, satirist and former long-time newspaper reporter, is the editor of Californa’s Capitol, a blog targeting state government and politics. Lucas is a contributing editor of Capitol Weekly.

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