YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

It's Party Time for Lobbyists

May 27, 2003|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In the gilded state Senate chamber one morning, Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) bemoaned the liquor industry's sway in the Legislature. She named booze lobbyist Aaron Read as a key opponent of her push to raise liquor taxes by $700 million a year.

But days later at a nearby restaurant, there was Read -- who wants lawmakers to spare liquor as they look for ways to relieve the state's fiscal woes -- in a crowd of lobbyists at a reception for Romero's reelection campaign. The door charge, for tamales and quesadillas, was $1,000, and a police group lobbying against budget cuts had bought Read a ticket.

These may be tough times for teachers facing layoffs and patients who fear hospital cuts. But the state fiscal crisis has been a boon to members of the Legislature in at least one respect: Lobbyists are responding to requests for campaign money with piles of $1,000 checks from clients seeking budget favors.

In the five months since budget talks with Gov. Gray Davis began, legislators have summoned lobbyists to at least 153 campaign fund-raisers in Sacramento restaurants and hotels. Lobbyists, bearing checks, have responded in force.

Donald Carlton Burns, a capital lobbyist since 1957, said the volume of solicitations has become unseemly.

"It's gone too far," he said. "It's just out of hand."

The invitations come in by fax, by mail, by phone and by e-mail. However delivered, the message is the same: Legislators are asking lobbyists to round up money from clients.

"Not everyone comes, but you invite them all," said Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).

Among the guests at Morrow's fund-raiser last month at Chops steakhouse across the street from the Capitol was HMO lobbyist Jeffrey Shelton, who is urging lawmakers to resist Medi-Cal cuts in the governor's budget.

The first public campaign reports disclosing how much lawmakers are collecting from donors with a stake in the budget are not due until July. As a result, it's unclear how much money has been raised or by whom. What is clear is that attendance at capital fund-raisers is robust, undeterred by the press of official business or the gravity of the fiscal situation confronting California.

Lobbyists are barred by law from donating to state lawmakers' campaigns, so it's the clients who cut the checks. Typically, a lobbyist sizes up a lawmaker's value to a client before recommending a donation. Does the lawmaker head a committee with jurisdiction over the client's industry? Is the lawmaker sponsoring bills that affect the client?

But even though it's donors who write the checks, by and large, it's lobbyists who show up with $1,000 tickets night after night at Frank Fat's restaurant and other fund-raising venues a short walk from the Capitol. At cocktail hour, lobbyists dash along downtown sidewalks, making their way to two, three, four, even five fund-raisers in an evening.

This week, the busiest day on the campaign-money circuit will be Wednesday. At Gallagher's Irish Pub, lobbyists will pay respects at a ham-and-eggs breakfast to Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando).

On Wednesday evening, at Chops, where racks of raw beef are displayed in a glass refrigerator next to the maitre d', lobbyists will offer clients' money to Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks). At Virga's Courtyard banquet hall, lobbyists will gather outdoors to toast Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles). Collecting checks at receptions nearby will be Assemblymen Greg Aghazarian (R-Stockton) and Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys).

For state lawmakers, campaign receptions with lobbyists who ply them for state favors in the Capitol are an integral part of Sacramento culture. Lawmakers refer to lobbyists as the "Third House" of the Legislature. They call their capital fund-raisers "Third House events." The idea, they say, is to mine for donations where they are most apt to find them.

"The only way to sort of raise money is to do it in a place where you are most of the time -- and where people are interested in the government process," said state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City).

Interest in the government process was intense among guests at Murray's reception last month at Glides hotel bar: Nearly all were lobbyists with name tags stuck on their lapels. Insurance lobbyist Michael A. Gunning sampled an empanada from the buffet table. He said he was keeping watch this year for lawmakers seeking to narrow the budget gap by raising the tax on insurance premiums.

"One of my jobs is to make sure they don't," he said.

Interest in government -- above all in the budget crisis -- was equally intense among the lobbyists who flocked to Romero's reception at Texas Mexican Restaurant. Cable television lobbyist Dennis H. Mangers said he had offered a budget suggestion to every state legislator: new taxes on the satellite TV business, cable's archrival.

"It occurred to us that we ought to at least suggest to the Legislature that federal law allows it," he said.

Los Angeles Times Articles