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The donation game

September 12, 2006

POLITICAL FUNDRAISING IN Sacramento typically jumps into overdrive in the waning days of the legislative year, when lawmakers push through their final bills and the governor decides whether to sign or veto them. So why should Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger steer clear of the trough that feeds the rest of the capital crowd?

Let's see -- because he promised he would?

With hundreds of bills awaiting a Sept. 30 signing deadline, Schwarzenegger is vacuuming up donations from a variety of business groups whose fortunes are at stake. The lengthy list includes real estate developers fighting restrictions on building in floodplains and car dealers opposing a mandate for more alternative-fuel vehicles.

The end-of-session shakedown has helped boost Schwarzenegger to a nearly 2-1 fundraising advantage over Democratic candidate Phil Angelides this year. And it follows a similar push a year ago when Schwarzenegger raised money for four ill-fated ballot initiatives.

This is the same governor who proposed, back when he was a starry-eyed rookie, to bar fundraising during Sacramento's critical decision-making periods. Imposing "blackout" periods wouldn't stop interest groups from funneling money into campaigns, but it would stop policymakers from grasping for dough when interest groups are most keen to sway them.

State lawmakers have been no less brazen than the governor this year, squeezing at least $3.5 million out of interest groups in August, the deadline month for state lawmaking. They've even developed a way to circumvent 24-hour campaign disclosure rules: Rather than collect cash (which requires disclosure), they just rake in pledges (which don't). That way, a donor buys all of the goodwill but none of the paper trail. That's the sort of behavior that breeds voter cynicism about Sacramento being controlled by special interests, which Schwarzenegger railed against during his victory in 2003, then promptly forgave.

Of course, Schwarzenegger's donors would probably be writing fat checks to his reelection campaign regardless of what he does with most of the bills. And the governor's aides insist that the money has no influence on his decision-making. He sounded the same theme three years ago, even as he was raising millions in campaign cash. "I have plenty of money. No one can pay me off," the governor said then.

But he should remember another of his messages from the historic recall election. "Here's how it works," Schwarzenegger said, in arguably his most effective campaign commercial. "Money comes in, favors go out. The people lose. We need to send a message: Game over." Evidently, it's a game the governor has learned to love.

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