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Sacramento’s pay pals

Don Perata, Fabian Nunez -- are you guys still here? Apparently so. Nunez has been succeeded as Assembly speaker, and Perata’s replacement as Senate president pro tem has been named, but the two men who led California’s legislative Democrats for the last several years remain major players in the expenditure of political donors’ money. As Times staff writer Nancy Vogel reported Wednesday, Nunez (D-Los Angeles) pulled $100,000 from a ballot measure committee and gave it, as a sort of bonus for “campaign consulting,” to Daniel Eaton, his chief of staff. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reported that the California Democratic Party used $250,000 of its contributors’ money to pay the legal expenses that Perata (D-Oakland) has racked up defending against a criminal probe by the FBI.

It’s all perfectly legal, but it sure stinks.

Supplementing a staffer’s pay with political cash, as Nunez did, only enhances the suspicion that a lawmaker’s real bosses are the special interests that make contributions and expect something in return, and not the constituents back home who send the lawmaker to Sacramento and whose taxes supposedly pay the salaries. Most Capitol staff do their political work on leave or vacation time and are paid from campaign coffers rather than public funds. Eaton didn’t even do that, further blurring the line between the people’s work and the donors’.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger upped the ante in recent years as he made a practice of rewarding top aides with bonuses, paid for with special interest cash, for political fundraising and other work not in the public’s interest. Nunez and other elected officials are only following his lead, although they should know better.

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As for Perata, Democrats not just in his district but anywhere in the state must wonder what their party is doing. They have every right to expect that contributors’ money will be pumped into districts where Democrats are locked in tough election fights with Republicans, or into struggles with the GOP over the budget. Instead, it’s paying the legal bills for Perata, who simultaneously is leading the fight against a redistricting measure on the November ballot.

When politicians demonstrate contempt for Californians, Californians respond in kind. Term-limits reform, badly needed to fix the state’s broken political system, lost at the ballot box in large part because voters mistrusted Perata, Nunez and Schwarzenegger, and with some reason. The notion that elected officials are paid by the public to do the public’s work has become distressingly quaint.


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