Bustamante's Tribal Money Shows How Capitol Works

By Dan Walters, Bee Columnist

With the Watergate political scandal still reverberating in the minds of voters, Jerry Brown keyed his 1974 campaign for California governor to a concurrent ballot measure that he said would curb special interest influence in the state Capitol.

Proposition 9, which was enacted by voters as they elected Brown to the governorship, promised much more than it could deliver. Indeed, the years following Proposition 9's passage saw an unprecedented torrent of campaign checks from monied interests flowing to politicians -- so much that the FBI undertook an undercover bribery investigation that netted more than a half-dozen prominent politicians, lobbyists and Capitol staffers.

Common Cause and other political reform groups have railed constantly that California needs tougher laws, including strict limits on campaign contributions and perhaps public financing of campaigns. They've had some success in enacting those laws through the ballot box but much less success in surviving judicial challenges to the laws. And the state's current finance law, written in the Legislature itself, is riddled with loopholes.

Fundamentally, however, laws restricting campaign contributions cannot repeal the stronger unwritten law governing the state Capitol or any other major governmental venue: The financial stakes in political decision-making are many times greater than the costs of political action.

The governor of California, other high-ranking officials and the Legislature directly control several hundred billion dollars a year: the state budget, tens of billions of dollars in federal funds, utility rates, insurance premiums, public employees' salaries and benefits, etc. Indirectly, they affect additional tens of billions of dollars by designating who can practice certain trades and professions; who can offer legal gambling; who can produce and sell liquor; what lands can be developed; who can sue and collect for personal injuries; what environmental, labor relations and consumer protection rules will govern commerce; and so forth.

The Capitol is a bazaar in which thousands of interest groups -- employing hundreds of lobbyists and spending perhaps a quarter-billion dollars a year on campaign contributions, lobbying fees and other expenses -- haggle. That's what it's always been, and that's what it always will be -- especially since we continue to expand the state's regulatory reach. And with those immense stakes, clever and motivated people will always find ways around whatever laws the reformers might devise. The real effect of most campaign finance limits, therefore, is to drive the trade underground.

The flap over Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's taking millions of dollars from casino-owning Indian tribes could not be a better illustration. The tribes need a friendly governor to protect and perhaps expand their monopoly on full-scale casino gambling, currently running about $5 billion a year. Initially, they and Bustamante used one of the many loopholes in the campaign finance laws to get around the $21,200 contribution limit that supposedly applies to candidates for governor from any one source.

The tribes, joined by some unions, donated heavily to an old Bustamante campaign fund, and he declared that he would transfer the money into his current drive to succeed Gov. Gray Davis should he be recalled on Oct. 7.

Bustamante's rivals cried foul; one of them, Arianna Huffington, told him that it was "nothing but legalized bribery." A Republican state senator filed a lawsuit to force the issue, and even state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres questioned it.

Faced with a rising crescendo of criticism that threatened to drown out his campaign message, Bustamante partially retreated and said he would shift the Indian money to financing anti-Proposition 54 ads with himself the star -- not as effective as using the funds for his gubernatorial campaign, perhaps, but legal.

The one campaign finance law that really works is the one requiring rapid disclosure, allowing the public to know who's taking what from whom. That law is working in the Bustamante case -- and even with his new ploy, he'll learn whether the upside of taking the tribal cash is offset by the adverse reaction to his ties to such an obviously narrow interest.

About the Writer

The Bee's Dan Walters can be reached at (916) 321-1195 or dwalters@sacbee.com.

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