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Campaign Contributions: Do They Buy Access to Legislators or Votes?

THE MONEY GAME: How county legislators raise campaign funds.

May 22, 1988|DANIEL M. WEINTRAUB | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Last year, Orange County's delegation in the Legislature collected more than 3,500 campaign contributions--totaling nearly $2 million--for 1988 elections.

Most of that money, according to those who gave it and received it, was contributed simply to ensure that lobbyists would have a chance to be heard when they needed to speak to a legislator about an important bill.

It is an explanation almost as old as political campaigns themselves: Contributions buy access to legislators, not votes. But critics of California's campaign finance system say "buying access" is just a polite way to describe old-fashioned influence peddling.

"The access argument is bogus," said Harry M. Snyder, who runs Consumers Union's San Francisco office. "They're buying votes. There's just no two ways about it."

Walter Gerken, former chairman of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. and sponsor of a ballot initiative that would limit campaign contributions and create partial taxpayer financing of legislative campaigns, said it is naive to think that contributors are satisfied with access.

"When you make contributions, you're hoping you're going to have the opportunity to talk to" legislators, Gerken said. "But you're also hoping that they're going to listen to you. That's the real world. Why kid anybody about that?"

If money does buy access, then developers and others in the real estate business have the easiest time getting in to see Orange County lawmakers. That industry contributed more than $320,000 last year to the county's 13 legislators, and lawmakers from the county carried several of the industry's most important bills.

- Last year, the Legislature approved a developer-backed measure by Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim) allowing California's first public toll roads to be built in Orange County.

- Earlier this year, Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) won approval of a bill to speed highway construction by allowing private companies to do more of the work that once was performed by state employees.

- Later this year, the Legislature is expected to make it tougher for school districts to collect fees from developers to pay for new school buildings, and Bergeson figures to be a key player in that fight.

Brian Theriot, spokesman for J.M. Peters Co., said the Newport Beach home builder contributes to campaigns in hopes of communicating a simple theme: Keep the free enterprise system as free from government intervention as possible.

"There's just no other way to be heard," Theriot said. "Sometimes you get a little bang for your buck, and sometimes you don't. The main reason you're giving is to let them know you're supporting them and you hope they're living up to the promises they made when they came."

Theriot said the company hopes for something more than philosophical affinity.

"If we take company profits out of our corporate coffers and we support them, whether or not they like what we're saying, we expect a call back," he said. "We expect a call back saying 'get lost' or 'yeah, we understand and we'll evaluate the situation.' It's ridiculous to say we don't expect something in return. We expect a phone call."

Former Assemblyman Bruce Nestande, now a vice president with Costa Mesa-based Arnel Development Co., has seen the system work from both sides of the fence.

"People give to be a part of the process and to be noticed and seen at social functions where there is fund-raising going on," Nestande said. "The giving is part of the system as far as wanting to spend more time with a legislator or, when you're trying to make that last-minute phone call, someone knows who you are."

Companies such as J.M. Peters and Arnel have been contributing to campaigns for years and are well-known to most legislators. But when a new firm moves into the state and wants instant recognition, one of the best ways to obtain it is to dump huge amounts of cash into legislative campaigns.

John Jervis, a spokesman for GTECH, which has a $120-million computer contract with the California Lottery, said the Rhode Island-based firm's large contributions to California legislators in recent years were a kind of "calling card" to introduce the company to lawmakers.

GTECH did no business here and made no campaign contributions before the state's voters approved the lottery in 1984, but it contributed an average of $280,000 during 1986 and 1987, once the Legislature became involved in setting guidelines for the lottery's contracts.

GTECH, which contributed $38,000 to Orange County lawmakers last year, is one of a new breed of contributors who keep their bases covered by giving money to nearly every member of the Legislature.

"They really don't have--and can't have, in their kind of business--any ideological bent one way or the other," Jervis said. "The management of the company includes members of both parties, and they basically give to become known and to have access.

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