Million Dollar Donations Flow in Fights Over Calif. Initiatives

By Steve Lawrence, Associated Press Writer

SACRAMENTO-Pushed by fights over gambling and term limits, Indian tribes, race tracks and labor unions are pouring million-dollar contributions into campaigns for and against propositions on Tuesday's presidential primary ballot.

Altogether, the seven propositions have drawn more than $160 million in donations, with 95 percent of the money coming from contributors that have given at least $1 million. While the amount is large, it falls short of the spending record set two years ago.

The bulk of the contributions this year is flowing to the campaigns over four Indian gambling compacts-propositions 94 through 97.

The proposals would allow four Southern California tribes-the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation-to add 17,000 slot machines at their casinos.

The four tribes and their allies have raised $101 million, almost all of it coming from the tribes.

Their opponents, a coalition made up of two other tribes, races tracks and a union representing casino workers, have raised $29 million.

"All of the tribal gaming measures voters have ever faced have been expensive, and this is the most expensive set of measures yet," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign spending.

Spending on the other three measures has been small in comparison.

Proposition 91, a transportation funding proposal that has been abandoned by its supporters, has drawn no support.

Proposition 92, which would shake up funding requirements for community colleges, has drawn $6.3 million in funding, much of it from teachers unions that have lined up on opposite sides.

The term limits measure, Proposition 93, has generated $23.2 million in donations. Supporters have attracted about twice as much money as opponents from a who's who of corporations, unions and professions that lobby at the Capitol.

California's current term limits allow lawmakers to serve up to six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. Proposition 93 would cut the maximum service time from 14 to 12 years, but allow all 12 years to be served in one house.

The measure's opponents say that would extend the terms of most lawmakers by eliminating the need for them to win a seat in the other house to remain in the Legislature beyond the current six- or eight-year limit.

Those critics contend that the measure's donors, led by the Service Employees International Union and the California Teachers Association, are trying to butter up lawmakers who see the proposal as a way to stay in office longer.

But teachers union spokeswoman Sandra Jackson said the organization supports the proposal because it would allow lawmakers to stay in office long enough to understand complicated subjects such as education funding.

"As it is now, legislators aren't there very long before they have to worry about re-election or the next campaign," she said. "There really isn't a period to learn about what's going on in Sacramento."

One of the most powerful interests at the Capitol switched sides in the midst of the campaign. The state prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, gave $2 million to the No-on-93 campaign after contributing $100,000 to support the measure.

Critics contend the union was getting back at lawmakers after they refused to approve a pay raise for the guards. Instead, union officials said they were upset with the Legislature's failure to fix the state's overcrowded prison system.

State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has given $2.5 million to the No-on-93 campaign, triggering claims that he's using his role as the measure's leading opponent to aid a possible run for governor in 2010.

Poizner said he jumped into the campaign because he disliked Proposition 93 and thought any change in term limits should be coupled with a measure that would take away lawmakers' ability to draw the boundaries of their legislative districts.

Despite the millions flowing to this year's initiative races, the total is not close to a spending record. That was set during the November 2006 election, when donors poured $333 million into campaigns for and against 13 ballot propositions.

Alexander, of the voter foundation, said the record for spending on a single proposition also was set in that election, when $154.3 million was spent in the unsuccessful campaign over Proposition 87, which would have imposed a tax on oil production.

The huge donations are possible because there are no limits on how much contributors can give to ballot measures campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court prohibited caps on such donations when it struck down a Berkeley ordinance in 1981.

But Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based think tank, says there should be a limit of $100,000.

"It really distorts the situation when you're able to have wealthy interests present their initiatives and others cannot," he said. "Basically, you can buy your way onto the ballot."

See the article on San Jose Mercury News website

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