Entertainment companies seeking a tax break, Staples Center owners hoping for a change in labor law, an ersatz Indian tribe angling for a casino: All are among the scores of donors writing checks to lawmakers in the final days of the legislative session.
As those lawmakers cast final votes on hundreds of bills, moneyed interests directly affected by them are contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
On Monday, the start of the final four days of the legislative session when 600 bills were awaiting action, interest groups donated at least $193,000, according to information filed with the secretary of state’s office and posted on its website.
Insurance companies, rental car firms and major pharmaceutical makers were among the donors whose four-figure checks arrived Monday, as legislators were voting on bills that could mean millions in profits or losses in years to come.
“The whole thing has turned into an almost 24-7 crazy, obsessive system,” said attorney Barry Broad, a longtime Capitol lobbyist for the Teamsters union. “All this money is corrosive. It is eating away at the credibility of democratic government.”
On two days last week, legislative incumbents and candidates held a combined 33 fundraisers. On Aug. 16, legislators and candidates held no fewer than 25 fundraisers in the vicinity of the Capitol, according to invitations to the events compiled by the Capitol Morning Report newsletter.
Interest groups gave at least $3.5 million, in contributions of $1,000 or more, directly to candidates for Senate and Assembly seats in the first 29 days of August. State law generally caps individual donations to legislators at $3,300.
The last time lawmakers faced a general election as they wrapped up a session was August 2004, when they raised $3.2 million, according to the secretary of state’s records. In August 2002, senators, assembly members and others running for legislative seats raised $2.1 million or more, according to the secretary of state’s campaign finance records.
“The fundraisers are being held at the moment of maximum leverage, and lobbyists are desperate to make one final good showing,” said Doug Heller, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. His group is advocating a measure on the November ballot, Proposition 89, to create a system for public financing of political campaigns.
This month, the Entertainment Software Assn. gave $18,000 to legislators. The firm is among the entertainment companies lobbying on legislation by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) that would grant their industry a tax break.
Payday lenders gave at least $3,000 to lawmakers in August, and more than $70,000 this year. They hope to blunt legislation that would cap interest rates charged to active-duty military personnel.
The Gabrielino-Tongva group of Native Americans donated at least $17,000 to lawmakers this month. Although the group is not a federally recognized tribe and has no reservation, its advocates are seeking legislation they say could help the group open a casino in Los Angeles County.
AEG, owners of Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, gave $50,000 to a committee controlled by Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland) last week to push bond measures on the November ballot for the funding of public works projects. The company is advocating legislation that would permit it to pay temporary workers on regular paydays, rather than immediately after they work at an event.
AEG spokesman Michael Roth said his company feels under no pressure to give donations, but rather contributes to causes and campaigns that will enhance “education, public safety and the community.”
In some instances, legislators have accepted “pledges” from their patrons, with the understanding that checks will arrive some time later in the election season.
The Democratic and Republican parties also are raising millions in preparation for the fall campaign, often with the help of legislative leaders. And big bucks are flowing into independent funds established to help -- or hurt -- candidates and causes.
“It is the way the system works, but there is something wrong with the system,” said Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael), who is serving the final days of his six years in office. “It creates a perception of impropriety.”
Many veteran lobbyists and former legislators, speaking privately for fear of alienating sitting members, are convinced that legislators have become more brazen in their requests for money.
In a bit of irony, some blame campaign contribution caps, imposed by voters in 2000. Before that, legislators could generate sufficient money by holding a few fundraisers a year. Now, they must hold multiple events to raise similar sums. Others blame term limits, and the desire of ambitious legislators to jump from one office to the next.
“It has gotten more aggressive. It has gotten bolder,” said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg), who, like Nation, is serving his final days in the Assembly.
Perhaps the biggest fight this week has been over the expansion of Indian gambling, which pits two of the Democrats’ main allies against one another.
On one side are tribes that own casinos, which have become the largest source of money in California state campaigns generally. On the other are labor unions, the Democrats’ biggest source of money -- and a major source of votes at the ballot box.
Six tribes have new or expanded gambling compacts, which they reached with the governor, that could add a combined 22,500 slot machines to the state, mostly in Southern California. All await legislative approval; one was announced Wednesday and would authorize the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians, in San Diego County, to add 3,000 slot machines to their current 2,000.
Five of the tribes, all from Southern California, have given more than $2.6 million to legislators this year. Organized labor has given $1.1 million in August alone to sitting lawmakers and candidates for Senate and Assembly seats.
Labor lobbyists are battling the compacts, contending that deals approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fail to give labor the ability to organize casino workers.
Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, called the issue fundamental. Noting that pro-union Democrats control the Legislature, Durazo said that a loss by labor would “be a terrible thing politically.”
“It’s like watching your two best friends fight,” Canciamilla said.
He has heard legislators talk about their fears of being “targeted” by the tribes or by labor. “They are friends. But you’re afraid of them too.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Sources of money
In August, as the Legislature was finishing its session, special interests gave at least $3.5 million to sitting legislators and candidates for Senate and Assembly seats. Among the contributors:
*--* Interest group Amount Issues Organized labor $1.1 million Labor contracts with state workers; opposition to gambling compacts
Real estate and construction 987,000 Various, including restrictions on flood-plain development
Insurance 310,000 Various, including potential workers’ compensation measures
Indian tribes 106,000 Seeking ratification of pacts authorizing gambling expansion
Entertainment 90,000 Tax credit; legislation to permit phone companies to enter the cable industry
Oil industry 71,000 Measures related to price-gouging, and air pollution and greenhouse gases
Telecommunications 28,000 Seeking legislation to open cable television to competition from phone companies
Sources: California secretary of state, Times research