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Sacramento squeeze play

A proposal aimed at averting tardy budgets would prohibit the money lawmakers really care about: political donations.

March 11, 2009

State elected officials' pay stops when the new fiscal year begins July 1 without a spending plan. But they know their back paychecks will be delivered when -- perhaps we should say if -- they finally do their duty. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called, in January, for eliminating the back pay as well.

Some lawmakers and their shrinking number of sympathizers argue that it would be unfair to penalize those politicians ready to sign on to a budget for the inaction of their colleagues who are bent on holding things up. But there's a better, and tougher, reason not to get excited about stopping the paychecks: Salaries don't produce the money that elected officials care about.

Politicians have to pay their bills like everyone else, but the real coin of their realm is the political donation. Campaign contributions are what keep their eyes on the next office and on each others' clout with constituent groups and special interests. It is as if people in elected office live on an entirely different type of currency. Gold guineas, perhaps, instead of pounds sterling.

It is no accident that the number of Sacramento political fundraisers jump (as do the number of wining-and-dining events with lobbyists) when budgets are late and the players are bickering over who gets what in the final deal. If the real goal of blocking pay is to focus lawmakers' attention on their spending plan duties, and to remove the incentive to convert a past-due budget into a political fundraising spree, Californians should ban campaign donations when the budget is late.

That's the thrust of Assembly Bill 1411 by Democrat Alberto Torrico of Newark. It would prohibit fundraising and reimbursement of travel expenses for lawmakers between June 15 and whatever day they send the governor a budget.

The cocktail parties and hosted retreats would go on, with donors offering pledges in lieu of cash, which would come after the budget was completed. That's also what keeps the proposal from running afoul of the 1st Amendment. But it would still be an improvement over the current situation, in which there is a tightening link between blown budget deadlines and ready-to-spend campaign cash.

Torrico also wants to cut off lawmakers' per diems -- the daily expenses they get for living in Sacramento and doing their public work. That actually may be the one payment Assembly and Senate members should get when they are late on the budget; it might keep them in town and focused on their work.

Lawmakers likely will show no more enthusiasm for Torrico's fundraising ban than for the governor's idea, but they should. It's a proposal that makes sense -- and what they don't take up now, they may see later in the form of a less well-crafted initiative sent to angry voters.

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