Special Interest Bills Still Part of Capitol Scene
Among the bills that have won approval in these final days of the legislative session is one that would specifically make it a crime to cheat at cards in a state-licensed card club. Another would make criminals out of those possessing soft-drink crates taken from a supermarket.
Yet another measure would expand wagering to four new racetracks that stage steeplechases, show jumping and barrel races. And there is legislation that would reduce the permits needed by a Los Angeles oil refinery.
The fact that narrowly drawn, special interest bills such as these are making their way through the Legislature with a minimum of debate has become part of the end-of-session lore. But this year, just four blocks from the Capitol, two former aides are on trial for their role in moving other special interest bills toward passage. And that trial comes in the wake of the convictions of two former lawmakers on similar charges.
In 1986 and in 1988, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved bills secretly drafted as part of an FBI “sting.” Lawmakers and their aides were told the bills would help two companies build a shrimp-processing plant near Sacramento.
Such special interest bills--crafted to help individuals or companies or a single industry--are a familiar part of lawmaking under the Capitol dome. When there is no explicit promise of payment in exchange for legislation--as charged in the federal corruption cases--such measures are perfectly legal.
The lawmakers who carry the bills, the staff members who track them and the lobbyists who promote them all defend the practice. Their bills, they say, seek to correct inequities in the law, create jobs back home in the district, or cut through red tape.
“If you want to use a fine-tooth comb, probably 95% of all the bills introduced and carried are special interest bills,” said Sen. Don Rogers (R-Bakersfield), adding that even transportation and medical policy bills often qualify.
He and other lawmakers say they recognize that many measures benefit only those who propose them, but they do their best to evaluate each proposal on its merits.
Rogers carried a bill to reduce the number of permits that Ultramar Inc., an oil company, needed to refurbish its Los Angeles refinery to produce low-emission fuels.
As drafted, the bill would have only helped Ultramar, but it was broadened to cover any other refineries in the coastal zone. The bill won easy approval in both houses and is on the governor’s desk to be signed into law or vetoed.
In a similar vein, Assemblyman Gerald R. Eaves (D-Rialto) has a bill that authorizes the state Public Utilities Commission to continue offering special, reduced electricity rates for large industrial customers--including two steel manufacturers in Eaves’ district, California Steel Industries and Tamco Steel. The regulatory commission has opposed the measure, Eaves said, because it wants to even out the cost of electricity--phasing out special rates altogether.
But Eaves, a former steel mill worker, argues that survival of the state’s last remaining steel companies is at stake.
“We need to do what we can to give some of these industries a break,” he said.
As with many special interest bills, backers of the Eaves measure are regular contributors to political campaigns. Eaves has received contributions from both California Steel and Tamco--$5,700 from 1985 through 1990, according to figures compiled from Legitech, a campaign data service.
Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) has a similar bill that would limit rate increases for agricultural users.
A second Eaves bill being considered by the Legislature in recent weeks would allow the sale of ornamental fireplaces in California, overruling the state fire marshal and public health officials.
Eaves argues that the Legislature is justified in overriding state bureaucrats.
“It’s been OKd in 48 other states, but in California it’s been caught up in the bureaucracy,” he said.
An identical measure was vetoed by former Gov. George Deukmejian because of the dangers of creating “a dangerous and life-threatening environment for the consumer.” Recently, Eaves pulled the bill back before a final Senate vote because of the likelihood that it would be vetoed by Wilson.
On behalf of the state’s legalized betting parlors, Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-Gardena) won approval of a measure making it a special crime to cheat at the games played in card clubs. Opponents argued that cheating at cards already is a crime under existing laws.
But George G. Hardie, managing partner of the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens, contended: “The district attorneys don’t want to file on it, even when we have videotapes.” The club, which is listed as the sponsor of the measure, has given substantial contributions to key lawmakers in recent years--about $50,000 from 1988 through 1990, including $1,000 last year to Dills.
The measure cleared both houses of the Legislature without a negative vote and is on the governor’s desk.
Another major donor to political campaigns that is sponsoring legislation is the California-Nevada Soft Drink Assn., which has contributed almost $100,000 to campaigns in recent years.
Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson) is carrying a bill for the association that would make it a crime to steal or possess a crate used for beverages or other grocery items. “The reason for it is widespread theft,” said Floyd aide Debbie Gravert. “It is costing the soft-drink industry $6 to $8 to replace (each one).”
An analysis of the bill by the Senate Judiciary Committee questions whether such a law is necessary when such losses are subject to ordinary theft laws. But in recent years, the Legislature has passed similar measures for milk crates, baking trays and shopping carts.
Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Fountain Valley) is carrying a bill for the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Racing Assn. that would allow betting on steeplechases, barrel racing and show jumping at four private tracks in California.
Kirk E. Breed, a lobbyist for the association, said the measure, awaiting approval or a veto by the governor, was part of an effort to expand the racing industry in California. “It’s like any sport,” Breed said. “The better you are the more interest there is, the more money you’re going to make.”