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Using new AI, grieving moms discover California lawmakers killed popular fentanyl bill by *not* ​voting

VIDEO: New AI search tool reveals California lawmakers kill popular bills by *not* voting.
Using new AI, grieving moms discover how California lawmakers killed popular fentanyl bill by *not* ​voting 04:52

They fought for fentanyl legislation, but it was killed before lawmakers even got to vote. Four grieving moms wanted to know why. They're uncovering the truth using a new AI tool designed to help everyday Californians hold lawmakers accountable. 

Search Digital Democracy Here


Unintentional activists discover what happens inside the State Capitol

Laura Collanton, Laura Didier, and Regina Chavez have formed a sort of sisterhood that no one would ever choose to join.

They've each lost a child over the past few years, poisoned by a fentanyl-laced prescription pill.

The unintentional activists now find purpose in working to save other parents from the same fate, speaking to students at schools and lawmakers at the California State Capitol.

However, they say the more they learn about state government, the more secretive it seems.

"Sometimes, this legislative process can seem kind of overwhelming to navigate and mystifying, but this really gives you this roadmap," Didier said, pointing to the new Digital Democracy website. 

The new website and AI search tool from the nonpartisan and nonprofit newsroom, CalMatters is connected to a database built and run by engineering and data scientists at CalPoly. The database includes every bill introduced, every vote cast, and every word spoken by every lawmaker, lobbyist, or advocate in California's Capitol.   

It was created to help everyday people find out what's really happening inside the walls of the Capitol.

"I'm intrigued, and I'm also appalled by what I've learned," Chavez said after using the site to research fentanyl-related bills with her fellow grieving moms.

ALSO WATCH: Fentanyl test strips are sweeping college campuses. Our testing found they may not detect laced fake prescription pills.

California senator abruptly walks out during emotional testimony

For instance, a simple search for Laura Didier's name reveals every hearing she's been to, including this one.

"I was shocked," Didier said, recounting what happened as she gave her emotional testimony that day. 

At the beginning of the hearing, you'll see the powerful Senate Public Safety chair, Bay Area Senator Aisha Wahab, sitting in the center of the dais. 

You can also see her reflection in the COVID-era plexiglass separating the gallery from the committee as Didier chokes back tears while she speaks. That reflection also reveals Wahab abruptly getting up and walking out while Didier describes the most painful moment of her life.

Several people in the seats behind Didier shake their heads in apparent disappointment as the chair walks out. Speakers are only allotted two minutes each.

"I just thought if my son doesn't deserve two minutes of your time when you were elected to be here," Didier said, recounting what she was feeling in that moment. 

"When a grieving mother has 40 seconds left to speak, maybe that's not the best time to make your exit," Didier continued.

"I mean, how callous?" Laura Collanton added.

"That is not what we're expecting or what we want from our state lawmakers," Chavez said.

Sen. Wahab's staff did not respond to requests for comment, but that's the day Didier said she learned how California's Capitol really works.

None of the three Bay Area Democrats on the committee — Nancy Skinner, Scott Wiener nor Wahab — were in the room for the vote on that fentanyl-related bill.

All three later voted no on the bill that would have increased penalties for selling fentanyl. The other committee Democrat, Inglewood Senator Steven Bradford, didn't vote at all.

Lawmakers commonly decide how they'll vote before a hearing begins, and it is not uncommon for committee members to leave a hearing to go testify on another bill that is being heard in a different committee at the same time.

In this case, the moms' were most concerned about the appearance of disrespect and apathy as the chair abruptly walked out in the middle of Didier's two-minute emotional testimony.

WATCH MORE: CBS News California Investigates

California lawmakers kill popular bills by not voting

However, it's what Digital Democracy revealed about Alexandra's Law that has them even more concerned.

The law, named after a Southern California teenager who was poisoned by a fentanyl-laced prescription pill, would require judges to warn people who are convicted of fentanyl-related crimes that if they sell fentanyl again — and if someone dies — they could be charged with murder.

"There's a lot of different fentanyl legislation that maybe are more, polarizing, but this one wasn't," Didier said.

More than 100 people testified at this Senate Public Safety hearing, most in support of the bill. Twenty-two bipartisan senators signed on as co-authors, meaning the bill likely already had enough votes to pass on the Senate floor.

But first, it had to pass the Public Safety Committee where the four Democrat Senators on the committee opposed the bill. However, instead of voting against the bill on the record, they simply choose not to vote.

So the popular bill died without anyone ever voting against the bill on the record.

"It's not appropriate to not go on record as being for or against something," Didier said.

"We're doing our job by voting," Chavez said. "That is what they signed up for, to represent us."

California lawmakers hardly ever vote "no"

In reality, the Democrat supermajority leadership predetermines the outcome of the vast majority of bills. And there can be consequences for voting against leadership or special interests.

Of 1 million votes cast by current legislators since 2017, the Digital Democracy database reveals Democrats vote "no" less than 1% of the time.

Legislative leaders and lawmakers declined repeated requests to explain a pattern that might appear like a rubber stamp for deals made out of public view.

But Politico's Lara Korte quoted former Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon as saying:

"There's only two (expletive) buttons on your desk…" "Ninety-nine percent of the time, the green button means you're doing the right thing, and the red button means that you're an (expletive) ."

Rendon's office also declined to comment.

"Is that the way that government is supposed to work?" we asked Southern California Senator Tom Umberg.

"No, of course not," Umberg answered.

Senator Umberg was the primary author of Alexandra's law.

"I can understand why the parents felt so aggrieved and so angry," he said.

Umberg has declined to vote himself in the past, but he is among the lawmakers with the highest percentage of recorded votes.

He explained that there are many reasons lawmakers decline to vote. Sometimes it's a polite way to vote no. In other cases, it's a way to kill a bill without taking a recorded stance.

Whatever the reason, "Not voting has the same impact as a no vote," Umberg said. That is the system that we have. Should we change it? Probably."

We reached out to both Assembly and Senate leadership to ask about concerns that California lawmakers routinely kill bills by abstaining from a vote instead of taking a recorded stance. Neither responded to our request for comment. 

Based on the Digital Democracy Database, current Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas abstained from voting last session 17% of the time, declining to vote at least 564 times last year. By comparison, Senate President pro-Temp Mike McGuire abstained from voting only 1% of the time, declining to vote 30 times in total.

Changing the way they work

Digital Democracy reveals that Alexandra's Law was one of at least 15 bills that died last year because lawmakers chose not to vote. Democrats on the two Public Safety Committees killed the most bills by not voting.

CalMatter's Dave Lesher believes that by making it easier to see things like that, Digital Democracy will prompt change.

"I do think it's a game changer," Lesher said.

He notes, until now, the political consequences of voting against party leadership — or powerful special interests — often outweighed the incentive to do the right thing. But now, lawmakers can get credit for taking a political risk because the public will actually see it.

"It'll change the decision-making process if that is public and transparent," Lesher said.

Once lawmakers see what Digital Democracy can do, "I think they're going to be worried," Laura Newsom said.

"I'm hoping they start showing up to their jobs, and those that have been doing it, I think they're leading by example," Chavez said.

Search Digital Democracy Here


The team that performed the data analysis for this story included Foaad Khosmood, Forbes professor of computer engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Thomas Gerrity, data scientist and product manager for Digital Democracy; and Zhi He, a Cal Poly student research fellow

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