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Time to Get Private Money Out of Public Policy

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger already was a poster boy for why we need real campaign finance reform in California. And now he has created a poster girl: Susan Kennedy.

In fact, Schwarzenegger shows us why we need the ultimate reform: public financing of campaigns. That would dramatically shrink the politicians’ money pots.

There’s way too much private money in politics, most of it invested by special interests seeking favors from the politicians they’re bankrolling.

Wonder why public employee retirement benefits have run amok? Why corporate tax loopholes can’t be closed? Why developers are allowed to sprawl over open space? Follow the political money.

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Schwarzenegger’s ability to tap rich donors for $55 million allowed him to foolishly wage war in a special election that cost state taxpayers $54 million.

Remember Schwarzenegger’s TV ad when he chased Gov. Gray Davis from office, calling him corrupt? “Special interests have a stranglehold on Sacramento. Here’s how it works: Money comes in, favors go out. The people lose.”

More political money has come in under Schwarzenegger than Davis ever dreamed of. Favors still go out.

And what does Schwarzenegger do now? He places his new chief of staff, Kennedy, on the special interest dole.

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The renegade Democrat’s $131,000 taxpayer-funded salary is being supplemented by money from Schwarzenegger’s campaign kitty, fed mostly by investing interests.

The governor’s office won’t say how much extra Kennedy is getting. Legally, she’ll ultimately have to report it.

Her extra political duties include meeting with donor groups and explaining the governor’s $222-billion infrastructure proposal, according to a campaign memo. That doesn’t pass the smell test. She’s also a shill for the money pitchmen.

That’s not the worst of it. She’s the governor’s main gatekeeper, policy advisor, negotiator and confidant. And for the price of a campaign donation, favor-seekers can buy access to her that’s denied ordinary folks.

Last week, Times reporters Robert Salladay and Peter Nicholas paraphrased Schwarzenegger as saying, during an interview, that he wanted his contributors to “feel comfortable about phoning [Kennedy] when they have a question.”

Perks for the payers.

Which highlights another Schwarzenegger mistake: He’s traveling around rebuilding bridges to disgruntled contributors but still isn’t trying to sell his ambitious infrastructure plan to opinion-making civic groups.

“Other people are asking, ‘Why’s he not talking to us?’ ” says Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the California Republican Party who operates a conservative blog called FlashReport.

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“Rather than just wealthy Republicans, the governor should be talking to all Republicans.”

They didn’t buy a ticket.

Kennedy isn’t the first powerful gubernatorial advisor to be slipped political money while on the public payroll.

Gov. Pete Wilson padded chief of staff Bob White’s pay during his 1994 reelection race. Last year, Schwarzenegger shifted an extra $5,000 per month to chief of staff Patricia Clarey, communications director Rob Stutzman and legislative liaison Richard Costigan, who advises the governor on which bills to sign or veto.

More of us should have yelled in the past. Shame on us.

The Kennedy deal particularly rankles because Schwarzenegger was supposed to be rehabilitating. He’d even talked about supporting campaign finance reform, possibly public financing.

Kennedy billed herself as an idealist who deserted Democrats to help the governor reinvigorate California with bipartisan legislative solutions.

She did tell me in December of her intent “to fight like hell” for the governor’s reelection. And realistically there could never be a “firewall” between politics and public policy, she said. “But there’ll be a firewall between the campaign and the government.”

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Not quite.

One rationale spun by the governor’s office is that these top advisors politic only “on their own free time.” That’s another eye-roller. There’s virtually no free time in those jobs.

“The public already pays these people once,” says Susan Lerner, executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign. “The idea that they should be double-dipping is truly astonishing.

“If you’re sitting and talking to somebody on the governor’s staff, how do you know what capacity they’re speaking in? Is it the place? Or the time? Do you check your wristwatch and say, ‘Oh, it’s after 5:30, she must be a campaign person.’ ”

For all his faults, Davis -- Kennedy’s former boss -- never allowed aides at fundraisers.

“I went out of my way to make sure that state personnel did not participate,” Davis says. “Somebody would be tempted to talk to them about their job, and then you’d be going down a slippery slope.... I did not want people to come to my fundraisers so they could personally lobby a staff member or a regulator.”

One small reform would be to bar government employees from pocketing special interest money.

A big reform would be to adopt a “clean money” plan like Arizona’s. Candidates could choose to let the public pay for their campaigns if they agreed to sharply reduced spending.

Freed from money-grubbing, elected officials could spend more time on public policy.

Such a bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), has passed two committees and is on the Assembly floor.

It would cost taxpayers $100 million per year. But as I’ve written before: Either the public buys the politicians or the special interests will.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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