Players May Have Changed But Money Game Goes On
This was the sort of week Arnold Schwarzenegger presumably had in mind when he cut a TV ad last September ripping Sacramento and special interests.
You may remember the candidate's campaign spot. He's sitting at a lunch table, talking to a small group and saying, "Special interests have a stranglehold on Sacramento. Here's how it works:
"Money comes in, favors go out. The people lose. We need to send a message: Game over."
Whatever message was sent on election day, the game continues.
Leaving aside the hyperbole â€" "stranglehold" is a reach â€" the system hasn't changed. It's inherently corrupt because most politics â€" certainly state politics in California â€" feeds off special interest campaign contributions. Special interests give to get, to invest in policy and power.
As Democratic consultant Darry Sragow â€" who runs Assembly campaigns â€" once told me:
"Contributions clearly do affect policy decisions. Because if you vote against the interests of someone who has been a significant supporter, it only makes sense that person will become less of a significant supporter â€" or a politician's worst nightmare, a significant opponent. You vote against those interests at your peril."
Politicians rationalize that money buys only access. Maybe they're fooling themselves. They don't seem to be fooling anybody else. Regardless, access leads to influence â€" and to favors.
This has been favors week in the Capitol. Legislators and lobbyists are up against a big deadline: Friday is the last day of this legislative session for policy committees to pass fiscal bills.
So committee rooms are overflowing. Capitol corridors are jammed. Lobbyists are buttonholing legislators, monitoring the hearings on hallway TVs, filling scarce benches.
It's surreal, in one way, because this is the height of the school tour season. Large groups of children, led by their teachers, are plowing into lobbyists and lawmakers. What an education these kids could be getting, if they only knew the half of it.
Some bills are being quashed under the weight of special interest influence, er, access.
Example: A bill that would have saved taxpayers $21 million by reducing the number of paid holidays for state workers â€" from 14 to 12 â€" was soundly rejected by the Assembly Public Employees Committee. It got only one vote, the author's: Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine).
The California State Employees Assn. is a major donor.
But hundreds of bills are flying out of committees. Many are receiving the equivalent of grade-school social promotions, advancing with little hope of ultimate success. Committee members will give a popular colleague's bill a break, deciding not to hold it back.
There's also a legislator's time-honored tacit message to another: I'll pass your bill, you pass mine.
Much of the voting, however, is about special interest favors.
Special interest is a pejorative that means â€" especially in the bluster of our new governor â€" the enemy. A special interest on Schwarzenegger's side is an ally, a supporter. Very likely a financial supporter.
But during workers' comp negotiations, Schwarzenegger learned that supporters also can be pests. Then they, too, become special interests. During his victory news conference, the governor complained about "the special interests around here â€¦ all getting involved [with comp]â€¦.
"The unions get involved and the insurance companies get involved, the business leaders get involved. So everyone was in the building around here making it very difficult to make decisions. And that's why it took longer, actually, than I thought it would."
Same old game, governor.
The best way to clean it up is with clean money: public money, for publicly financed campaigns.
But politicians are reluctant, especially now with a nagging $15-billion state deficit.
"It's the wrong time to bring it up," Assembly Speaker Fabian NuÃ±ez (D-Los Angeles) told me. "The state has no money."
I bumped into the speaker in a packed corridor outside a committee room, where he was helping organized labor rescue a bill aimed at shining the light on prescription drug pricing. It's a seemingly innocuous bill, but strongly opposed by pharmaceutical interests.
"I'm absolutely for public financing," said Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation. "There's too much special interest money."
But labor is a big donor to Democrats, I noted. "We can't keep up with it," he replied. "They beat us 15 to 1."
Upstairs in the Capitol at that moment, a public financing bill was getting a "social promotion" â€" being advanced by the Assembly Elections Committee. It has no prospect of passing the Legislature. It'll ultimately morph into a ballot initiative.
Indeed, if committee members had believed it might be enacted, the measure never would have survived.
For starters, legislators got elected under the current pay-for-play system. Why fix something that's not broken for them.
The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), is the product of an outfit called California Clean Money. It's modeled after laws in Arizona and Maine. State candidates could choose to let the public pay for their full campaigns if they agreed to dramatically reduced spending.
It would cost the taxpayers $80 million a year. That'd be a sound investment. Either the public buys the politicians or the special interests will.
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