Sacramento's Orgy of Bagels, Cigars and Cash
State leaders belly up to the bars and buffets for their annual, unseemly special-interest shakedown.
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
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
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
NuÃ±ez 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
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
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.
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