Governor Tries to Keep Donations, Bills Apart

By Dion Nissenbaum, Times Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO - After pledging to reject money from special interest groups, Arnold Schwarzenegger has accepted large donations from a wide array of businesses looking to sway the Republican governor as he decides whether to sign or veto hundreds of bills by month's end.

Schwarzenegger has tried to head off criticism of his fund raising by creating an ever-evolving set of restrictions that prevent certain groups from giving him money, but some of his recent donors have very specific agendas.

• Last week, Schwarzenegger cashed a $5,000 donation from a pharmaceutical company days after signing a bill it co-sponsored that expands its access to state nursing homes.

• The governor received a $100,000 check from ChevronTexaco in late August as he was poised to begin considering a series of measures that would benefit the oil industry.

• State dentists gave the governor $25,000 two weeks ago while hoping he will sign several bills. One would impose new limits on state regulators who oversee their profession; a second could save their company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Schwarzenegger's top fund-raiser said Wednesday that he may have to return the donation after learning that it may violate the governor's self-imposed ban on accepting money from single-interest trade groups.

Margita Thompson, the governor's press secretary, rejected any implication that the governor had rewarded, or would reward, donors by approving or rejecting their pet bills.

"The governor has no idea who gives to him or when they give to him," Thompson said Wednesday. "I've seen him as he's deliberating over bills, and he's always focused on doing what's right for the people and looking at things from the policy perspective, not the political one."

Even if Schwarzenegger is not doing favors for campaign donors by signing their bills, he is reinforcing that impression, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group based in Montana.

"Schwarzenegger is spending taxpayer money, and every time he gives something away, he's giving away the taxpayers' money to a special interest," said Bender.

When asked about his fund-raising practices two weeks ago, Schwarzenegger said he would make decisions "based on what I think is best for California."

"Special interests should not have an influence on our capital," he said. "And they should not buy their way in. And that the politicians shouldn't be that weak that they would accept money in return for favors. You can accept money, but don't return favors for that."

Special interest influence was a major cause of former Gov. Gray Davis' undoing. Political reform groups and Republicans criticized Davis for raising money during the bill signing period and took every opportunity to accuse the Democratic governor of repaying campaign contributors when he signed their bills.

During last fall's recall, Schwarzenegger attacked Davis over his ties to special interest groups and assured voters that he would not be beholden to anyone but the people of California.

Since he took office last November, Schwarzenegger has undercut that image by breaking all fund-raising records.

Democratic political consultants have quizzed voters to see if the governor's fund-raising practices are undermining his image as a clean-cut reformer. Privately, some Democrats view the issue as a potential Achilles heel.

So far, though, the governor's nebulous stance on special interest influence has not undercut his popularity with voters, who still give him the benefit of the doubt.

Schwarzenegger is trying to deflect criticism by rejecting donations to his 2006 re-election campaign until he signs or vetoes all the measures on his desk. He is taking a break from raising money for his campaign to defeat two gambling measures on the November ballot, but is appearing at fund-raisers for other GOP candidates.

Schwarzenegger is turning away money from tobacco giants, workers' compensation insurance companies, tribal gaming interests and some energy firms. Last week, the governor returned a $25,000 check from Liberty Mutual because of its work on state workers' compensation reform.

Until now, Schwarzenegger also has refused donations from single-interest trade associations such as the California Medical Association. But two weeks ago the governor accepted the $25,000 check from the Dentists Insurance Co., which is owned by the California Dental Association.

Marty Wilson, the governor's fund-raiser, said Wednesday that he didn't know that the insurance company was owned by the dental trade group and that the donation might be returned.

Even with the new rules, Schwarzenegger has collected more than $350,000 since the beginning of September and more than $600,000 in the past four weeks. One of the biggest checks came on Aug. 23 from ChevronTexaco, the oil giant that is part of an industry association urging Schwarzenegger to veto a high profile energy reform bill carried by Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. The coalition also is urging Schwarzenegger to sign a measure that would raise fees on tires and car registration to combat air pollution.

Although the measure is backed by the state Environmental Protection Agency, it also would clear the way for higher car taxes, something Schwarzenegger fought against during the campaign.

ChevronTexaco officials declined to comment.

Mercury News staff writer Laura Kurtzman contributed to this story.

See the article on Contra Costa Times website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

   Become a Clean Money Member