Whatever happened to the "terminator" of special interests in Sacramento?
"Dirty money," Arnold Schwarzenegger called big campaign contributions during his successful campaign for governor in the 2003 recall election: "The people of this state do not trust their government. They feel it is corrupted by dirty money, closed doors and back-room dealing." He was right, and he vowed to be different, scorning the "special interests" that give millions to state candidates in election years.
"Game over," he declared. Even the skeptics who rolled their eyes wished it were true.
Today, the game is still on. Schwarzenegger is California's champion campaign fundraiser and has pushed the art to a new level. He has collected tens of millions not just for his own political treasure box but to support issues he wants to put on the ballot.
The governor has whittled down his definition of "special interests" to entities with which he has to bargain directly, primarily public employee unions and casino-operating Indian tribes. Now, without any sense of contradiction, he collects money from investors, real estate interests, developers and companies in the entertainment, high-tech, healthcare, agriculture and insurance industries. Even if much of the money goes to ballot measures that might be meritorious, funneling it through Schwarzenegger perpetuates the widespread belief, if not the reality, of a state capital controlled by big contributors. Schwarzenegger is keen to make the state friendlier to business, so his year-end vetoes of all 10 bills designated by the California Chamber of Commerce as "job-killers" might have happened even if he hadn't raised a dime from any business group. But why does the governor allow himself to be perceived as being in debt to contributors, raising questions about his motivation?
In 2003, a series of Times editorials described the problems that have paralyzed government in California and recommended steps to restore its effectiveness. Schwarzenegger has proposed one of them: an independent panel to draw up more competitive electoral districts. Freeing elected officials from the campaign financing tollbooth is necessary to restore an effective Legislature and untainted statewide offices, including that of governor.
Schwarzenegger identified the problem during his campaign when he said, "Any of those kinds of real big, powerful special interests, if you take money from them, you owe them something."
Schwarzenegger has proposed banning fundraising while the Legislature is considering the state budget, from January through June. But most legislators have little effect on the budget.
To see the real giving and getting, visit Sacramento any August, during the final weeks of the legislative session. It's a frantic period when bills fly back and forth from Senate to Assembly, are heard in 30 seconds in a committee meeting in a back room or rewritten with a lobbyist sending "suggested language" or "technical amendments" to a member.
At the same time, legislators are just as frantic about holding fundraising events. Restaurants make out like bandits. Last August, as lawmakers were deciding on many of the most critical bills of the session, the officials picked up more than $2 million from interests including drug companies, auto dealers and insurers, all with a stake in the action beneath the Capitol dome at that moment.
Lobbyists ran from event to event, making certain recipients were aware who was delivering the checks from their clients, as chronicled by Times reporters Dan Morain and Robert Salladay. In the old days, the legislators would at least hold a sit-down meal, with speeches. That practice fell victim to night sessions as the Legislature scrambled to clear its clogged calendar of bills. Drop-by breakfasts became popular. Now even the pretense of fellowship is stripped away. As Salladay reported, Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) held what was in effect a $1,000-a-person, drive-by fundraiser. "A breakfast basket will be provided for those of you on the run," the invitation read.
Last August, Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) was pushing a bill to give auto purchasers a three-day period in which they could return a car to the dealer. As the bill moved along, dealers' representatives distributed $28,050 in contributions to legislators who voted against the bill or abstained from voting. Afterward, one of the lobbyists had the gall to say, "We don't base contributions on bills."
Increasingly, legislators simply don't vote on any issue that might offend a donor. This is one reason the state's legislative process has almost ground to a halt.