By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com The Sacramento Bee
Published: Monday, Mar. 8, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

When Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the state Senate, outlined his priorities last month, he included “oversight.”

In Capitol jargon it means the Legislature’s holding hearings or conducting investigations into how state programs are functioning.

Steinberg, in fact, has created a Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes and staffed it with ex-newspaper reporters, supposedly to do the same kind of deep drilling they did in journalism.

Committees in both legislative houses are doing what they say are oversight hearings on various matters.

There have been some noteworthy oversight efforts in years past, such as investigations into former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush’s virtual shakedowns of insurers for political slush funds, and former Gov. Gray Davis’ award of a big computer contract to a campaign contributor.

More recently, however, “oversight” has tended either to focus on relatively minor issues, or be grandstanding, such as Republican Sen. Jeff Denham’s hearing last week on veterans’ home services in Fresno, where he’s seeking a congressional seat.

Back to Steinberg’s Office of Oversight and Outcomes. He’s hired some talented journalists, but so far they haven’t produced much of lasting import. Recently, it generated a third report that was critical of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s furloughs of state employees.

That’s an important issue to public employees and their unions, and Steinberg’s Sacramento district has a heavy contingent of unionized state workers. But it’s hardly a bedrock issue for 38 million Californians.

Steinberg spokesman Nathan Barankin said the unit chooses its own topics to investigate, and the importance of the findings is “in the eye of the beholder.”

So what might be more important targets for legislative gumshoes? How about the scandal at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System over huge payments to “placement agents” who obtain multibillion-dollar investments for their clients? Many of them have been money losers, adding to the fund’s huge value decline that taxpayers will have to cover.

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