SACRAMENTO — In the midst of intense state budget negotiations, Democratic lawmakers stole away to an elegant wine-country lodge where the gourmet meals, rooms and cocktails were provided by a trio of interests with much at stake in the Capitol.
Soon after the trial lawyers and the unions representing firefighters and carpenters covered the $14,000 tab, their agendas advanced in Sacramento.
Such getaways for lawmakers are commonly bankrolled by groups with business before the state, often while that business is pending.
"This is an unending problem in Sacramento, where lobbying groups bring politicians somewhere to wine and dine them," said Doug Heller, executive director of the group Consumer Watchdog. "No matter who they represent, groups think that's the way you play the game."
The December expenditures were disclosed last week in documents filed by lawmakers, who also reported that various other interests provided them with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of dinners, overseas travel and tickets to Disneyland, Dodger baseball games, rock concerts and golf tournaments.
The two-day retreat was convened at the Wine and Roses hotel and spa in Lodi a day after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal emergency and ordered the Legislature to meet on a series of proposals to plug a projected $42-billion budget gap. The Consumer Attorneys of California, California Professional Firefighters and Northern California Carpenters Regional Council picked up the tab.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) raised the money for the Democratic Caucus event, which included a reception attended by nine Republican lawmakers. Steinberg spokeswoman Alicia Trost said that lawmakers mostly discussed the budget, but that there were also political discussions and thus it was inappropriate for taxpayers to foot the bill.
At the time of the retreat, the carpenters were lobbying for a greater role for private contractors in state construction and to expedite the building of certain roads and other transportation projects.
Firefighters were seeking to protect funding for fire safety programs. The trial lawyers had joined labor unions to battle a push by Schwarzenegger and GOP lawmakers to roll back some labor rules.
Each group largely accomplished its goals in the budget package passed in February.
The budget included measures opening up public building projects to private contractors and speeding up, with streamlined environmental reviews, $1.4 billion in transportation projects and those involving surplus state property. The budget cuts spared most fire safety programs, although, according to Carroll Wills, a California Professional Firefighters spokesman, some training money was lost. And lawmakers scaled back changes affecting overtime rules for workers.
Each group denied that the retreat had anything to do with those provisions.
"It wasn't part of any campaign to get that passed," said Paul Cohen, a spokesman for the carpenters union, which represents 40,000 construction workers.
Said Wills: "It wasn't targeted to any budget issue."
Dan Morain, a spokesman for the lawyers, said his group helped fund the retreat because "consumer attorneys are proud to participate in the democratic process."
The annual state budget is not the only issue of interest to the groups. The attorneys and firefighters lobbied the Legislature last year on 79 bills.
Trost said donors' proposals are treated just as they would be if the groups had not given a cent.
"Any request would be treated with the same thoughtful process of determining what is best for the state," she said.
Republicans also reported gifts from private donors.
Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) received a $144 dinner at Morton's Steakhouse hosted by the California Bankers Assn. Sens. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) and Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) and Assembly members Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks) and Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) were among those who received hundreds of dollars in tickets to Disneyland from Walt Disney Co.
Huff was also treated to a Jeep trip through the Sierra Mountains worth $840 by groups including the National Off-Road Assn.
Others went further afield.
State Controller John Chiang, a Democrat, attended a seminar in Egypt, Jordan and Israel, with the $13,211 cost covered by the Aspen Institute. Sen. Rod Wright (D-Inglewood) reported a trip to New Zealand and Australia, which cost $15,569 and was paid for by the California Foundation for the Environment and the Economy. The foundation receives dues from big energy companies.
The same organization paid more than $30,000 to send Assembly members Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks), Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Mary Hayashi (D-Castro Valley) to Spain to study water, high-speed rail and public-private partnerships for infrastructure.
Assemblyman John Perez (D-Los Angeles) visited Israel on a $4,900 trip funded by the Jewish Federation, and Assemblyman William Monning (D-Monterey) went to Jordan to teach at a conference at United Nations University, with nearly $500 of his travel costs covered by Global Majority Inc.