"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is state Senator George Runner, cosponsor of the Jessica's Law initiative. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: What's it like being able to work with your wife (Assemblywoman Sharon Runner)? You don't share an office, do you?
Runner: No, no. In fact, we rarely see each other through the day. We each have our own schedules, committees, those kinds of things. But it makes it very nice at least to go home at night.
Signal: You have people who get in touch with her people
Runner: All our people talk to our people, yes.
Signal: You have a new grandson.
Runner: We have a new grandchild up in Sacramento now. Our son and daughter-in-law had a child about 3-1/2 months ago. That's wonderful. They actually have two new children they had a foster child, a 12-year-old, in their home, that they adopted at the end of the year, too. So we actually have two new grandchildren all of a sudden last year, a 12-year-old and a 3-1/2 month old.
Signal: How does it feel to be an old man now?
Runner: It has worked out great. We're really proud of them, with how they are doing that, and then taking on an older teenage, almost child to help out, too. We're really proud of what they are doing.
Signal: You must see Sharon once in a while, because you work on legislation together
Runner: Yes. In fact, just this last week there was a debate on the Assembly floor that I went over and actually talked to the Assembly Republican Caucus. So we do get to spend some time, particularly right now, as we are working with Jessica's Law.
Signal: Where does that stand?
Runner: We're gathering signatures right now. That's an issue that we are taking to the ballot, dealing with sexual predators, bringing together a number of laws that have just not been able to get successfully through the Legislature, and putting them right directly to California voters.
We've been collecting signatures since about the end of November. You need about 385,000 good signatures to qualify, and right now we have collected just over 400,000, and we are on our way. Our plan (is) for is about 550,000, to make sure we qualify.
Our deadline to turn (them) in to the county registrars is Feb. 21. But our internal deadline to get all petitions back is Feb. 10. I know some of your (readers) have already gotten involved, they've either gotten some (petitions) in the mail, or they have seen people out in front of some of the big boxes, taking signatures. We encourage them, if they got those petitions, to get them in back to our office as soon as possible. The addresses are right on the petition. We're at the very end, and we're confident that California is going to get to vote now on tougher laws for sexual offenders.
Signal: Is there a Web site where people can see the petition?
Runner: It's JessicasLaw2006.com. We can mail them a petition although it might be pretty late for that but at least you can see where we're at, and right now they are gathering signatures in front of most of the larger stores and whatnot.
Signal: Somebody could come to your legislative office
Runner: That's right, they can come, they can call us
Signal: Where is your office in Santa Clarita?
Runner: In City Hall, (on the) second floor. We can get them information. We can't actually give you a petition out of our office, but I'll bet you we know somebody who could.
Anyway, things are going very well. So if people would like that, they can call our office, go to JessicasLaw2006.com on the Web; there are phone numbers there and we'll be able to take care of people.
The great thing about what is happening is that we really have put the Democrats on the run up there. I have never seen so many anti-sex offender pieces of legislation introduced and moving through the Legislature as we have today.
Signal: So everybody is jumping on the bandwagon. Is it no longer a partisan issue?
Runner: What I point out to people is, there is just a big difference between what gets introduced in the Legislature and what actually gets out of the Legislature and then is able to be signed by the governor.
I think what you are seeing right now is, you are seeing a lot of people introduce things just to say, "Me too, me too." At the same time, we've got a couple of bills that are very confront(ative) efforts to try to undermine public support by saying, "Here is our plan," and unfortunately it doesn't go very far and it isn't significant to protect kids.
Signal: Wasn't there one bill that didn't get out of the Legislature that proposal to keep sex offenders from living within 10 miles of a school or park?
Runner: Ours was 2,000 feet of a school or a park where children play.
Signal: Doesn't current law already keep them a quarter-mile away?
Runner: No. Actually, a registered sex offender, not on parole, can live right next to and across the street from a school. And I think (if) you're on parole right now, and you're the most violent sexual offender, then you have to live (at least) a quarter of a mile (away), but once you're off of parole, you can move right across the street.
Our studies have shown, when we take a look at sex offenders located around schools and people can take a look at that right now by going to their computers, looking it up at Megan's law, and they can see where did all these sex offenders come around these schools if, while they were on parole, they couldn't live there? Well, the answer is, when they got off parole, they moved closer to schools.
So our feel is, we need to have zones where kids walking to school shouldn't have to walk by a child molester's home as they are walking on their way to school. Of course, our law does much more than that it deals with the issue of lifetime (Global Positioning Satellite tracking); it deals with the issues, for instance, of child pornography.
Right now, no matter how much amount of child pornography you may have, it's only a misdemeanor. It can never be charged as a felony. What Jessica's Law does is, it can be charged as a felony.
Signal: It can be charged as a felony if there's a prior sex offense?
Runner: No. Remember what child pornography is. Child pornography are pictures of children in sexual events. They are not just nude pictures of children. People think, "Oh, that's an artsy picture." That's not what we are talking about. We're talking about children who are involved in sexual abuse and you have a picture of it. What we're talking about is that if indeed it is right and makes sense, the prosecutor ought to be able to say, "That's a felony for you."
Now, some of the other key components are things like the idea of surfing the Internet. Right now, the state of California cannot successfully prosecute an offender that they catch by being a decoy on the computer. That's where an undercover cop goes on, pretends like he's 13 years old, sets up a arrangement with some sex offender to come meet them somewhere.
Signal: But we often hear of people getting caught that way.
Runner: But they are not charged under California law. We have a law in place that says you can't (do that), but not one person has ever been charged under that law. So they have to find something else to charge them with. In fact, "Dateline (NBC)" has actually run a couple of stories recently outrageous stories where they set these people up and they say, "Yeah, why don't you come over to my back door, and by the way, take your clothes off when you're coming in" because what that's all about is, they have to show intent, and walking through the door nude is pretty good intent. So they do things like that.
But the state of California again, if that was done by our local law enforcement, it couldn't be done. Now, the FBI and federal law can do it, but our prosecutors have wanted to set these up, and right now they can't charge them with it. So that's one of the issues it does.
It also lengthens terms. It makes it so they can't get "good time" credits while they're in prison. It means that, for instance, to be a sexually violent predator the most dangerous of predators of all right now you actually have to have two victims ... in order to be identified the most violent. No matter how violent and obscene you were (to) the victim before, you actually have to have another victim. So we let them out, and then they strike again, and we say, "Oh, now they are a sexually violent predator."
We change that and say it could be just once, depending on the crime.
Signal: What about a situation like statutory rape where the guy is 18 years old, the girl is 17 year old, both consented but it's statutory rape. Is that person a sex offender?
Runner: No. Under our law there has to be a seven-year difference between the age of the two parties in order for it to be considered to be a molestation.
Signal: So a 14-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl
Runner: No, it's under 18. The issue is adults
Signal: Does your legislation affect juveniles?
Runner: Well, it depends on exactly juvenile law is a bit different, but certainly the issues of registration, those kind of issues, apply to, for instance, a 17-year-old who would molest a 6-year-old. In terms of registration and in terms of lifetime GPS, those things apply.
The other law that we have, that we are not changing, is some other aspects of juvenile law it's just different with juveniles. We're basically dealing with adults.
So back to your question about statutory rape, we're concerned about, for instance let's think about the ages the 22-year-old who all of a sudden is dealing with a 15-year-old. We think that is a different issue. And that's why we have dealt with it as a seven-year difference.
Signal: Let me put on my left-wing, ultra-liberal media hat and ask you
Runner: You keep one of those in your closet?
Signal: Goes with the territory. How fair is it to track somebody with Global Positioning Satellite for the rest of their life if they committed a crime when they were 19 years old and now it's years later and they've been off parole and kept out of trouble isn't that Big Brother-ish?
Runner: Well, let me tell you our view. The fact is, we only deal with those folks who are already registered under Megan's Law. So that individual you are talking about is already on the computer. Their addresses is already on there. You can already type in their name and see them. We're not dealing with GPS for any different parties at that point.
Signal: It's an added enhancement to something that's going on for the rest of their life anyway
Runner: It's a added enhancement, but what I would point out is, I think it's actually less intrusive than the fact that anyone can type your name in and see your picture and see where you live.
Signal: Which they still will be able to do.
Runner: Which they still will be able to do. But I am just saying, it's a different kind of involvement. I have actually talked to sex offenders who actually feel better about it ... because what happens if there is a molestation or an event that takes place where they are close to, or where they live? They are the first suspect. What they tell me is, "Hey at least they know where I am, they know I wasn't there." So they are almost seeing that as a way to protect themselves from what they see as the automatic accusation and the automatic having to prove where they were.
The other issue that makes it a little bit different and that is why we as a society have done the issue of pictures and Megan's Law is that the incredible recidivism rate that we have with child molesters and sexual crimes is undisputed. So as the result of that, the fact is that you are a part of a crime and a past crime that shows that most likely you will probably offend again.
So we believe that one of the issues that takes place and in fact there was a study done in Florida where they have GPS that showed there was change of behavior as a result that somebody knew somebody was watching them.
Signal: If we all had Big Brother looking at us, we would all act a little bit differently
Runner: But again, remember that Big Brother is watching you because of a crime you had done. And it's a different crime.
There was another interesting study that has been done about sex offenders, done by the U.S. Board of Prison Terms, where they did a study of sex offenders those who had molested children and what they had found is that for every one time that an individual is caught, they found that that molester had actually molested 35 other individuals.
That's a lot different than robbing banks, or murderers, because there is a pattern of not getting caught in this process. That's what we are really trying to do. We are trying to protect society from that behavior which seems to be very difficult to extinguish.
Signal: This isn't your first foray into legislation dealing with sexual predation. This seems to be something that both you and Sharon have worked on consistently throughout your tenure in the Legislature. What is behind this fixation? Why all of this sexual predator legislation coming out of your office? Is there a lot of this going on in Lancaster?
Runner: Well, you know what? There's a lot going on everywhere. There's a lot happening in Santa Clarita. It doesn't take much to go back and look at your daily newspaper to find out about a molestation that took place or a teacher somewhere or a custodian somewhere or whoever else it was. It's a very pervasive issue that's happening in our community, and it's not just I wouldn't say it's a "fixation." I'd say that probably out of the 500 bills I may have introduced, probably 10 of them have to do with some issue of sexual offenders. I think we've got plenty other issues that we're dealing with.
But certainly, this idea that some of the bills that I have introduced are in Jessica's Law that have not gone anywhere that is our frustration. Because we don't get satisfaction, nor do we get any relief for our kids simply by introducing bills. We only get that kind of relief and that kind of change when bills are actually passed. And that's not possible right now in this Legislature.
Signal: Why not. In whose interest in Sacramento is it to stall anti-crime legislation?
Runner: Well, it's amazing to me. ... The chairs of the two Public Safety committees are both San Francisco Democrats. Now, San Francisco Democrats are not necessarily what I call the middle of even the Democrat Party in regard to tough-on-crime issues. In fact, while I lose bills on public safety in the state Legislature, so do many of the Democrats lose bills that are tough on criminals in the Legislature. It is frustrating. And it's frustrating for them, too.
In fact, on my way over here, I just heard on the radio (about) a bill (that) a new Assembly member, a Democrat, was going to be introducing, dealing with a criminal issue. As I sat there and listened to it, I said, "That's great. The problem is, he will never even get it out of committee."
Signal: Why would even a San Francisco liberal Democrat be opposed keeping sex offenders at least a quarter-mile away from a school?
Runner: Well, part of it is that they have much more an ear to folks like the ACLU. (It) certainly has a much more dramatic effect, particularly in terms of increasing (crimes) to felonies. Many of them do not like "three strikes," so they believe any time you add a felony, it basically reinforces a law they don't like three strikes so there are more possibilities of three strikers who go to prison longer. And they don't like that because they think the three strikes these are the people who want to change three strikes.
Signal: Does Jessica's Law reclassify any crimes as felonies?
Runner: Yes, it does. A number one them. Child pornography would be one. It could be possession, it could become a strike. It doesn't have to be done as a felony, but it could be done as a felony. And if it is done as a felony, it's a strike.
The issue of Internet luring automatically becomes a felony, as opposed to a misdemeanor. But again, no one has ever been penalized under the current law even as a misdemeanor. So we increased that as a felony, and it's going to be enforceable. So that would be a strike.
So those are the issues. The other issues they have difficulty with is, they believe that "good time" credits should be earned by sexual offenders. We don't think so. We don't think how you act in prison has anything to do with your sexual proclivities that got you there in the first place. We think for the sake of the victims, you shouldn't be able to serve some time that way.
The other (thing) we do that they don't like (is), we take away a great deal of judicial discretion. In fact, we take away all judicial discretion. Currently, folks are maybe hearing about what's happening up in Vermont, where you had this child who was molested over a five-year period and the judge gave the individual a three-month sentence. He got all kinds of heat for that. He then gave him an enhanced sentence, which I believe was 3 to 10 or 3 to 6 years (for) that molestation (of a child) that took place multiple times over a five-year period.
Under our law, that individual what we do in the state of California, number one, that would have been a 15-year sentence, but with judicial discretion, so it could be lowered.
Under our (Jessica's) law, what we do is, we take away judicial discretion, so it's 15 years. In addition to that, he could be charged for every molestation event that took place. So if there were four that could they could demonstrate and prove, then all of a sudden it could be four times 15, or 60 years in prison.
So that's part of the issue we are dealing with. We have seen too many times, individuals who have far less severe sentences than unfortunately the victims have had to endure.
Signal: Will we see Jessica's Law on the ballot in November?
Runner: November of this year, right.
Signal: You mentioned that only about 10 of your roughly 500 bills are related to sexual predation. What else have you been doing lately for Santa Clarita?
Runner: Well, lately we have been doing some (things) specifically in regard to some education issues that are very important to Santa Clarita.
One of the bills we have introduced, actually for the governor, is the next school bond offering. Especially for us in fast-growing areas, we believe that we need to make sure that the state's dollars stay available in order to meet the local matches that are coming up either through local bonds or Mello-Roos or however the local school districts are coming up with their match. So we are offering the bill to go through the next set of dollars for not only K-12, but also for community colleges.
In that is some very important issues we think are important for areas like Santa Clarita. For instance, there is a whole new section in there for technical buildings and classrooms for K-12 programs. Because we believe one of the issues that we've got to address is how to aggressively take care of the next generation who aren't necessarily not all of them are going to go to college, so how do we give them skills that help them get those high-paying technical jobs that are available?
The other issue we are dealing with is an issue called equalization. And that is both for community colleges and for K-12. It was unbelievable to me, when I got up there, to found out that not all schools get the same amount of money per student. It really was unbelievable to me when I found out, most of the schools in my district were the ones that were getting less. So we've introduced legislation.
We actually got some more money for equalization last year, (for) community colleges. This year we're going to try to finish it off with community colleges and with K-12. We have introduced a bill on both of those issues, got the governor's backing on both of those issues; the governor wants to include those in his budget, too. So we've got a great deal of support. I've got a Democrat, actually, who is a joint author with me on both of those bills
Signal: LAUSD is good at lobbying Sacramento and getting a disproportionate share of the per-pupil funding
Runner: And unfortunately it is a disproportionate share of legislators who cover their area (Los Angeles) because they are so cotton-picking large. But at the same time, there's a growing, powerful group that says, "Hang on. My school should be able to get the same kind of support and help as these other schools do." So I think we're going to be victorious in that, and I think we are going to see the schools in the Santa Clarita Valley better funded.
Signal: The school bond is part of the governor's $222 billion bond proposal. You've served on the Budget Committee. How much can the state afford to borrow?
Runner: Well, actually, the governor's plan that is the total leveraged amount. In the governor's plan, the numbers are more like $70 billion that are actually in the 10-year plan.
To just give some perspective on this, over the last five years, just the various things people put on the ballot either themselves, or the Legislature did, we actually bonded for over $45 billion in the last five years.
(People) say, "Oh, man, we are just ramping up." It's really not. And I think we do need to be careful. I'm the last one to say that we should just keep borrowing money. But at the same time, part of the issue that I think we need to look carefully at is, how do we repay that? How we protect ourselves?
So the other bill that I have introduced is a debt cap. That is, we should cap our debt at 6 percent of our general fund so that we always have a limit up there as to what it is that we are going to be dealing with, so we don't then get ourselves in a position to where we are actually working on too much borrowed money and then fall dependent on, in bad economic times, not being able to meet that. So one of the bills that we have introduced along with the governor is the debt cap itself at 6 percent.
Signal: How do you want to see the state pay for all the new infrastructure that is needed?
Runner: I think the state needs to do it through a variety of ways. I think we need to do it through some borrowed money, the general fund because that is how borrowed money is paid back, is through the general fund we need to do some revenue bonds, which are specific ways to for instance, if you are going to do a dedicated truck lane from point A to point B, they help pay for it by paying tolls. You create a revenue bond. That's how you build it, and they help pay for that.
I think you do it through leveraging federal money, and we have done a good job of that. We need to do a better job of that. So I think there is a variety of ways in which you can actually do it. The key is, you just have to have a plan. I think that if anything, that's what I appreciate about the governor's overall issue. I disagree with some of the issues and I am not in agreement with some of the amounts, we're working through those right now. But the thing that I do agree with is that there's a plan there.
The other issue that I just remind people of is, if we don't do anything, we pass the debt on to our children. It's the debt of the lack of infrastructure. So we need to be smart as we do it. We need to do some pay-as-we-go, just out of our general fund, and I think through the combination, we can help set up a better California for future generations.
Signal: You're considered a conservative Republican, both fiscally and socially. We're hearing a lot lately out of people like Steve Frank, a conservative GOP activist with a Web site, and others who are starting to hammer on the governor for not being as conservative as they'd like him to be. How should Schwarzenegger be running for reelection as a conservative? As a moderate? What's he doing right? What's he doing wrong?
Runner: The governor needs to serve all the people of California. Now, there are some issues that I don't agree the governor on, but quite frankly, I agree with him more on the issues that he has, than probably Phil Angelides will have, or Steve Westly will have.
I served with governors, both Democrat and Republican. To me the issue is, you try to get the best representation you can, a person with a vision of California. I think the governor has done that. I am going to try to influence him. I am going to try to make it a more conservative plan. At the same time, sometimes I feel like some of our "more conservatives," if they're not careful, feel better about losing but saying the right things, than winning and trying to influence the future.
Signal: You don't go along with the idea that it's worth losing to teach him a lesson?
Runner: The problem is, I think Californians overall would end up bearing that lesson, and I don't think that's a worthy gift for us to give to them.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.