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Fundraising follies

The state budget is past due, so why are lawmakers spending time raising big bucks from donors?

August 18, 2008

It was bad enough that members of the Senate and Assembly gave themselves a vacation in July, when the state budget was already past due. What really rankles is how they have spent their evenings since rolling back into Sacramento.

After each fruitless day in the Capitol, they walk across L Street to one of the clubby watering holes or hotel ballrooms or quasi-swank restaurants -- or maybe a few blocks farther afield to a more exclusive spot -- to rub elbows with, and pick up checks from, influential donors.

To parents worried that schools may be defunded, or to the typical Californian wondering whether sales taxes are about to go up, this is budget season; but for lawmakers, this is fundraising season. It means little to elected officials that they don't get their paychecks while the state budget is past due, as long as they scoop up the important stuff -- political cash. That's the flow that needs to be cut off pending an adopted-and-signed spending plan. Political fundraising by state legislators and the governor should be banned when the budget is past due.

The Times has called for a fundraising blackout during the weeks just before and just after the end of the legislative session, when lawmakers are in their final bill-passing crunch and the governor is mulling whether to sign or veto. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even vowed that he wouldn't collect money during that period, because doing so smacks of backroom deal-making. Legislation should stand or fall on its own merits; decisions to pass or not pass, to sign or veto should not be made while big bucks are being dangled by special interests trying to secure action on bills.

Those same corporate and labor interests gather when budgets are overdue. Like miniature devils with little pitchforks, they swarm cocktail parties to prick Republicans seeking reelection and urge them not to give an inch on taxes. They prod Democrats eyeing higher office, pressing them to give up nothing on programs. The lawmakers don't mind. The budget can wait, as long as the donations keep coming.

It is extremely unlikely that senators and Assembly members would vote to cut themselves off. Even Schwarzenegger reneged on his pledge. But Californians have every right to insist. This state has far too many initiatives, but a ballot measure that bans fundraising while the budget is past due may be just the thing to jab lawmakers back into negotiations.

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