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Donations can't fail to catch Nunez's eye

Groups with bills before the Assembly give $1.68 million to fund speaker's bid to adjust term limits.

June 04, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The law bars them from donating more than $7,200 directly to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). But nothing has prevented teachers, doctors, gambling enterprises, insurers and others from giving much, much more to a cause close to Nunez's heart.

Those interest groups wrote checks for as much as $250,000 to help bankroll a ballot measure that would tweak California's term limits to give Nunez another six years in the Legislature. Seventeen unions, corporations, utilities and professional associations have donated a combined $1.68 million for a signature-gathering effort to put the measure before voters next February.

The contributions, all made within the last two months, come as lawmakers led by Nunez are deciding on hundreds of bills of concern to the donors. The groups had already spent a combined $3.5 million in the first three months of this year trying to influence the Legislature, governor's office and state agencies, state records show.

Some seek to shape just a handful of bills. Others -- Pacific Gas & Electric Co., for example -- have lobbied on several hundred pieces of legislation. PG&E gave $50,000 to the campaign for the term limits measure.

Jay Stewart, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Better Government Assn. in Chicago, said he doubted that union members and corporate shareholders were clamoring for a term-limits overhaul. But the large donations are certain to be noticed by Nunez, he said.

"Common sense tells you that if you support an issue near and dear to any legislator ... to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, you're probably going to get your phone call returned," Stewart said.

Nunez spokesman Steve Maviglio said there was no connection between the speaker's official actions and donations to the term limits campaign.

"The speaker has built a reputation for integrity because he maintains a firewall between contributions and policy," Maviglio said. "There are simply no dots to connect."

He said that last month Nunez helped craft sweeping legislation, opposed by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., to ease prison overcrowding. The union, which donated $100,000 to the term limits measure in April, argued that the new law would do nothing to address a shortage of prison guards and included shipment of convicts to private prisons in other states. The California Teachers Assn. gave $250,000 to the term limits effort, as did the Los Angeles Casinos political action committee. Insurance and entertainment companies, builders and several labor unions are among the other donors of more than $25,000.

Some have especially high stakes in the current legislative session. Hospitals face the possibility of a 4% levy on their revenues under a proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to extend health insurance coverage. Nunez included no such assessment in his own pending plan for covering millions of uninsured Californians.

The political arm of the California Hospitals Assn. gave $100,000 to the Committee for Term Limits & Legislative Reform on May 4.

The term limits measure, managed by Nunez campaign strategist Gale Kaufman, would reduce the number of years future lawmakers could serve in the Legislature from 14 to 12 but allow sitting legislators to remain until they have served 12 years in their current house. Without a change in the law, Nunez, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and 32 other lawmakers must leave next year.

Kaufman said the campaign is halfway toward its goal of gathering 1.1 million signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

California Hospitals Assn. spokeswoman Jan Emerson called the proposal a good adjustment to the state's current term limits, passed in 1990, which restrict lawmakers to six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.

The potential measure "adheres to the spirit of the original law while at the same time promoting effective governance," Emerson said.

The California State Council of Service Employees donated $200,000 in April. Executive Director Dean Tipps called his group's contribution a way of giving voice to 650,000 union members.

He described the term limits measure as "a good compromise between concerns about people staying in office too long and being disconnected from the voters and, on the other hand, having some people with expertise."

There was no connection, Tipps said, between the term limits donation and the 75 bills on which the affiliated Service Employees International Union has lobbied this year. Those bills include legislation that sets rules by which cities and counties can hire "temporary" employees and a passel of budget and healthcare bills.

"There are laws that say you're not supposed to connect money with legislation, and I'm big on obeying the law," Tipps said.

nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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Term limits reform

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Donors of $25,000 or more to date include:

* Zenith Insurance Co.

* Anschutz Entertainment Group and its related L.A. Arena Co., which operate Staples Center

* American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

* California Building Industry Assn.

* Southern California Edison

* California Dental Assn.

* California Optometric Assn.

* A political action committee of Los Angeles County card clubs

* Service Employees International Union Local 1000

* California Teachers Assn.

* California School Employees Assn. and the group California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment

* California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

* The political arm of the California Hospitals Assn.

* California State Council of Service Employees

* Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Source: Times reporting

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