Sacramento's Orgy of Bagels, Cigars and Cash

*State leaders belly up to the bars and buffets for their annual, unseemly special-interest shakedown.

By Jamie Court

WHEN legislators returned to Sacramento last week, they had 1,700 bills to pass or kill before this session ends Aug. 31. And 75 fundraisers to attend.

The fundraising orgy starts with 7:30 a.m. bagel breakfasts, moves on to sirloin lunches and ends with cocktails, sushi and fine cigars. All are cloaked as parties, but they're intended to shake down lobbyists and special-interest groups for contributions â€" ranging from $1,000 to $22,300 a head â€" at what marketing folks call the "peak moment of interest." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will sign or veto the bills that make it to his desk, is asking the maximum per plate for breakfast Thursday. Those who miss out on the bacon and eggs can pay 10 grand later for schnapps with the guv and possible presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani.

Today is the height of the dollar derby, with at least 20 fundraisers scheduled. It almost makes you feel sorry for the special-interest groups. "For the month of August, we don't see our family," a lobbyist told the Capitol Weekly. "Under the current system, they have to ask, and we have to contribute."

Despite politicians' protestations that campaign contributions do not influence them, big money makes a big difference in the legislative frenzy. Is it any coincidence that big-money lobbies win and consumers lose?

While drivers suffer from skyrocketing gasoline prices, oil companies have reaped billions of dollars in profits and poured millions into state political contributions. Five bills to combat high gasoline prices have already failed this year, including legislation to reform price-gouging laws. A new state report showing that oil refiners' actions spurred high prices could lead to reconsideration of these measures, but campaign contributions are likely to stand in the way.

On another front, AT&T and Verizon and their employees have given more than $1 million to state lawmakers and their political parties. After AT&T hosted a golf fundraiser for Democrats that raised $1.7 million this spring, Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez raced deregulation of the pay-TV industry through the Legislature. The bill, making its way through the Senate this week, allows AT&T and Verizon to lay fiber optic lines without having to seek approval from local governments.

Health insurers and HMOs contributed nearly $1 million to Schwarzenegger and a bipartisan group of legislators in the first half of this year. Those companies staved off legislation this year to improve policy protections and are regrouping to stop the cost controls in a universal healthcare bill to be heard this week in the Assembly.

Who else will be making the campaign-cash rounds in Sacramento?

There are construction companies and developers that would reap billions from the infrastructure bonds the governor and Legislature put on the ballot. The industry already tops Schwarzenegger's list of donors â€" $15.9 million since the recall.

Labor leaders are likely to be on the guest lists as well. They'll give to try to pass a bill raising the state minimum wage. Wal-Mart, Taco Bell and Target will contribute to try to stop a hike.

Highest-bidder-wins should not be the modus operandi of California government.

Even former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who was the king of Sacramento influence-peddling before leaving town in 1995, is wide-eyed. "There wasn't the same aggressive fundraising there is now when I served," he said, noting that back then there were no such events during August.

This could be the last August for the cash dash. Proposition 89 on the November ballot would establish public financing of campaigns, paid for with a tiny increase â€" 0.2% â€" in the corporate profits tax. So candidates who kick the fundraising habit would not have to prostitute themselves for private financing. Few politicians would opt out of accepting public money if their publicly funded opponents could match them dollar for dollar.

The same special interests and lobbyists nibbling, sipping and twisting arms this week will be putting up big money to stop Proposition 89. Their ads will rev up fake outrage that any tax would pay for politicians' campaigns. What they won't mention is how the price of our gasoline, healthcare, housing and telephone bills is a lot higher when lobbyists do the paying.

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

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