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Sheriffs Seeking More Clout in State's Politics : Law enforcement: Brad Gates will direct new PAC that will 'talk, counsel and make endorsements' to maintain an active role in local and statewide elections.


SACRAMENTO — Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates joined his counterparts from around the state Wednesday to decry anticipated budget cuts and warn lawmakers that California sheriffs intend to take a more active role in political races.

At a press conference on the Capitol steps, Gates took part as director of a new political action committee recently formed by the California State Sheriffs' Assn. at its annual convention in April.

Gates said after the event that the sheriffs group, which is 98 years old, now wants to inject itself more deeply in the political process by lobbying officeholders, asking for their written positions at election time and announcing endorsements.

Those endorsements have given law enforcement groups--prison guards, California Highway Patrol officers and rank-and-file police officers--a growing clout in Sacramento, where lawmakers are receptive to their views. Both Republicans and Democrats eagerly seek such support to bolster their law-and-order credentials with voters.

Gates said the sheriffs group, which has made endorsements only in high-profile statewide races, wants to become more politically active through political endorsements at other levels as well, rather than use a $1-million reserve to give campaign contributions.

"We prefer to talk, counsel and make endorsements to influence people on law enforcement issues," the sheriff said.

Their talk and counsel Wednesday was directed toward Gov. Pete Wilson and lawmakers, who are wrestling with an $11-billion gap between income and projected state spending and who were told to tread lightly on local law enforcement.

Gates said his department will sustain a 2% cut this year, losing $2 million, while most other sheriff's departments in the state are facing reductions ranging from 8% to 18%.

The Orange County sheriff suggested that the Legislature should take the handcuffs off of county supervisors by lifting the so-called state mandates to provide health care and other social services, thus allowing them to shift that money to other local functions, such as law enforcement and libraries.

The sheriffs also released their position on a bundle of bills, ranging from support for Wilson's plan to change workers' compensation laws to opposition to legislation that would streamline reporting of police brutality complaints.

Gates said these positions will become the standards against which the new political action committee will judge candidates and incumbents. "Those are the kind of things we'll take into account down the road when they want to get involved with us in the political process," he said.

Gates said the sheriffs are also urging Wilson and legislators to allow county jails to collect booking fees from the more well-heeled prisoners, as well as from state agencies that now use the facilities at no charge. Cities, however, already foot the bill under a controversial state law that passed recently.

In Orange County, where the booking fee is $154, Gates estimated that those two changes would net $300,000 from prisoners and $2 million more from the CHP, college campuses and other state agencies that now drop off prisoners but do not pay.

Asked where those agencies would find the money in the midst of the state's financial straits, he said: "That's their problem."

Money from the extra booking fees, Gates said, could then be used to break the deadlock in Orange County and other areas over building new jails or expanding them. The county is under a federal court order to reduce jail crowding, but voters in May, 1991, overwhelmingly defeated a proposed half-cent sales tax to pay for a new 6,720-bed jail in Gypsum Canyon.

"If money is on the table to resolve the issue, that's going to pressure the politicians to make the decision," Gates said of the booking fee.

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