Drinks, trips, tickets and banquets for legislators are part of $650,000 a year spent by utilities and may give them a big edge in the battle over the proposed merger. : Lawmakers Lavishly Lobbied by SDG&E;, SCE
If San Diego officials ask the Legislature to block the proposed merger of Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, they will butt heads with two of the Capitol’s most extensive corporate lobbying operations.
Edison and SDG&E; have spent a combined $650,918 in the past year to elect and influence members of the Legislature, Gov. Goerge Deukmejian, and his appointees to the Public Utilities Commission.
The two companies contribute regularly to political campaigns. They wine and dine state lawmakers in Sacramento, across the country, and even around the world. And they give personal gifts, from sports tickets to ski trips, to legislators of both parties.
Legislators say these payments have no impact on their deliberations. But no one denies that the utility lobbyists enjoy personal relationships with lawmakers and easy access to their staffs--an edge that might be decisive be when it comes to influencing a closely fought legislative battle.
“These folks are very well-financed, very astute,” said Ben Clay, lobbyist for the San Diego County Water Authority. “They’ve got legions of people available to work on this issue.”
The Water Authority, an appointed body that acts as a wholesaler for the water San Diego imports from Northern California and the Colorado River, has proposed legislation enabling it to acquire SDG&E;, which would block the planned merger of the two investor-owned utilities. If successful, the acquisition would be the the largest public takeover of a utility in the nation’s history, according to the American Public Power Assn.
To help Clay lobby for the bill, the authority, which has spent $43,206 on lobbying since January, 1988, has hired veteran Sacramento advocate Phillip Schott, whose other clients include the Motion Picture and Television Producers and the California Assn. of Port Authorities. Still, the pair will face a formidable opponent.
Southern California Edison, which is expected to fight the Water Authority proposal, employs five in-house lobbyists. The company also hires a private lobbying firm--Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliot--for assistance. SDG&E; has four in-house lobbyists, two for the Legislature and two for the Public Utilities Commission.
In the first nine months of 1988, Edison reported spending just short of $200,000 on lobbying. About half of that went in salary and expenses for the company’s in-house lobbyists. The rest was paid to lobbying firms and went for gifts, meals and beverages for lawmakers. Edison also contributed $123,327 to lawmakers’ campaigns.
SDG&E; spent $254,823 on lobbying during the same period. The utility spent $73,889 in campaign contributions.
From Cocktail Lounge to Golf Course
The state’s Political Reform Act prevents registered lobbyists from lavishing gifts upon lawmakers--no more than $10 a month per lawmaker is permitted. But the utility lobbyists nonetheless have regular contact with legislators in social settings--from the cocktail lounge to the golf course--and the companies themselves are not subject to the $10 monthly limit.
Some examples of the companies’ contacts with legislators and their staffs:
- On June 20, Edison bought dinner at Biba’s, a fashionable Sacramento restaurant, for more than half of the 40-member state Senate. Seven of the senators brought their wives along for the dinner, which cost $161 a person. Each guest also received a $21 flashlight as a gift from Edison.
Of the nine-member Senate committee that oversees the utility industry, only two members did not attend the dinner. The guest list also included three-fifths of the important Rules Committee, which decides procedural questions that can mean the life or death of legislation, and seven of the nine members of the Appropriations Committee. Eight of the 11 members of the Judiciary Committee were also present.
* In the first three months of 1988, Edison gave Sacramento Kings basketball tickets to 16 legislators and several of their aides. Among those accepting tickets were Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, and Assemblyman Patrick Nolan (R-Glendale), who was then the Republican leader in the Assembly.
* One Edison lobbyist, Tommy Ross, frequently buys meals and drinks for legislative staff members at Brannon’s, a bar and restaurant near the Capitol. For one recent meal, Ross hosted a consultant for the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, a deputy in the office of the Legislative Counsel, two assistants to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), an aide to now-deceased Assemblyman Curtis Tucker (D-Inglewood), a staffer from the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the legislative coordinator for the state Office of Administrative Law.
* Another Edison lobbyist, Robert Foster, plays golf regularly with legislators and their aides at a Sacramento County country club--at least 26 times in the last 20 months. Since March, 1987, Foster has played golf 11 times with Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), Peace’s top aide, David Takashima, or both. Once, Foster even picked up the tab for Takashima’s father.
* SDG&E; lobbyists and company officials seem to prowl the bars of downtown Sacramento, looking for legislators and aides with whom they can share drinks and conversation. From July 1 through Sept. 26, they reported picking up tabs for 30 legislators and 27 aides on 33 separate occasions. The Legislature was in session for about 20 days during that period.
Pay Travel Expenses
Similarly, officials from both utilities are often on the scene when legislators and their spouses travel around the country or the world. They have bought meals or drinks for California legislators in Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Indianapolis, Ind., and Auckland, New Zealand, among other places.
* SDG&E; bought tickets to the National Football League Super Bowl in San Diego for Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) and her husband; Sen. Wadie P. Deddeh (D-Chula Vista) and his wife; and then-Sen. Jim Ellis (D-San Diego) and his wife.
* The two utilities helped share the cost of an outing known as the “Legislative Winter Carnival,” in January, 1988. The two-day event features downhill ski races between lawmakers and their staffers from California and Nevada.
Among the overnight attendees at the Strawberry Lodge in Kyburz, near the Sierra Ski Ranch, were Assemblyman Peter Chacon (D-San Diego) and his four children, and Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas) and two of her children. Seven other Assembly members also attended.
Lawmakers downplay the effect of such gratuities. In July, 1987, SDG&E; treated then-Assemblyman Larry Stirling, his staff and their families to a Padres baseball game, a package worth $634.13 including tickets, food and drinks. But Stirling, a San Diego Republican who is now a senator, is leading the campaign to scuttle the merger, much to SDG&E;'s chagrin.
Assemblywoman Mojonnier said her receipt of contributions and gifts from the utilities will not affect her judgment. She said she hasn’t decided whether to support or oppose the merger.
“My door is open to anyone who wants to talk about the issue,” she said.
Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee, said he often socializes with Edison Chairman Howard Allen, and has accompanied Allen on events ranging from lunch to a tour of North Sea oil operations. But Rosenthal said that won’t stop him from opposing the Edison-SDG&E; merger if he thinks it will hurt customers.
“If they’re doing things that are good for the ratepayers and good for air quality, then I’m supportive,” he said. “But I’m not going to support something which only benefits the stockholders or is a sweetheart deal with certain officers.”
No Guarantee of Success
The lobbyists, likewise, say their constant contact with lawmakers does not guarantee success, only opportunity.
“We have a message to tell,” Cassie of SDG&E; said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything any different from anybody else. All we get from what we do is an opportunity to talk to them.”
Foster of Edison said his frequent contacts are necessary so that legislators are familiar with him when he needs to talk to them.
“They know who I am,” he said. “That’s my job. To make sure they know who I am.”
Assemblyman Peace, whom Foster helped teach to play golf, noted that it is difficult to measure the “insidious” effect of legislators socializing with people who are paid to influence them.
“Southern California Edison in my opinion is as powerful as any special interest in the state,” Peace said. “There’s nobody more powerful.”
But Peace said he can oppose Foster and be opposed by him without hurting their personal relationship.
Rosenthal also said that the utilities are among the more influential lobbies in the Capitol.
“They’re in there on a constant basis,” he said. “They’re informed, they keep their legislators informed, and they relate to their constituencies. The utilities always have a lot of clout.”