Think of what’s going on most every weeknight right now in Sacramento as a kind of political pub crawl. More specifically, a political pub crawl for cash.
Early in the morning and late into the evening, lobbyists and interest group heavyweights amble along the corridor of restaurants and bars ringing the state Capitol. They’ve been invited to a variety of breakfasts, lunches and happy hour soirees thrown by state lawmakers, some even promoted as a politician’s birthday party and others held at sports events or concerts.
There’s only one thing you need to attend these parties: cash for the lawmaker’s political campaign.
“It’s kind of legalized bribery,” said Bob Stern, one of the authors of the landmark California Political Reform Act and a longtime advocate for campaign finance laws.
Stern once served as chief counsel for the state’s ethics agency and doesn’t make that observation lightly. He argues it’s simply too cozy for cash to privately change hands between those who write the laws and those who benefit from them. After all, Stern argues, attorneys don’t get to schmooze with judges on pending cases.
“It gets you access,” he said. “And if you can get time with the legislator, that’s golden.”
While campaign fundraisers are held throughout the year, the past few days have been some of the busiest of 2017. Invitations posted online by the Capitol Morning Report, a statehouse subscription-based newsletter, show 70 legislative fundraising efforts were held in downtown Sacramento in the final two weeks of August.
A review of all of the year’s invitations shows that most events are bunched around two important dates on the legislative calendar. The first comes in late winter, the deadline for legislation to be introduced. This is the influence industry’s first chance either to get bills beefed up or watered down. The second hot time for fundraisers is now: the final few weeks for bills to be approved or killed before the Legislature adjourns on Sept. 15.
During the times of the year when things are quiet, lawmakers pull out all the stops to collect cash. Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) invited guests to a spin class in March for $1,500 a ticket. Assemblyman Brian Dahle (R-Bieber), who’s soon to be the GOP leader in the Assembly, offered wild game as the entree at his April event for a $1,500 or $4,200 contribution. That same month, Assemblyman Matt Dababneh (D-Woodland Hills) offered a shuttle ride to San Francisco to ride the city’s trolleys for $2,000 a ticket.
Over the next two weeks, few will have time for more than just simple cocktails and hors d’oeuvres near the Capitol. While state regulations limit the role of lobbyists in actually handing over checks — money from their clients, not their own bank accounts — it’s a given that the so-called “Third House” is part of the process. Stern said the intent of the original 1974 campaign reform law was to keep lobbyists out of the mix, but the idea was blocked by judges over free speech concerns.
It gets you access. And if you can get time with the legislator, that’s golden.
Even so, he thinks there’s room for reform. For starters, Stern suggests there should be a ban on fundraisers in non-election years when incumbents have a huge advantage in attracting campaign contributions. Some even can scare off competitors by amassing sizable war chests.
Lawmakers themselves made an effort to change part of the cash culture a few years ago, when the state Senate imposed a late-session fundraising ban and others pushed for one during budget-writing season. But the Assembly took a pass on joining the effort, and the rules were scrapped.
Any interest group seeking maximum access to lawmakers Wednesday, a peak fundraising day, would have shelled out $35,900 to hit all of the parties being held around Sacramento. In the coming week, many of those lobbyists will be making the rounds all over again.