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California awaits budget while its legislators rake in millions

Lawmakers have taken in $6.9 million in campaign contributions — many from companies with business before the state — since the fiscal year began July 1. Meanwhile, the state's bills go unpaid.

September 20, 2010|By Shane Goldmacher, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — While state legislators have done little to tend to California's dwindling treasury during this summer's record-setting budget impasse, they've focused aggressively on filling their own coffers.

Lawmakers have vacuumed up more than $6.9 million in campaign cash — more than $80,000 a day, state records show — since the fiscal year began without a budget on July 1. Much of the money has come from powerful interests trying to advance an agenda.

The legislators have wooed lobbyists and donors over cocktails at a Beverly Hills cigar club, in luxury boxes at baseball games and at Disneyland. A dozen golf retreats were scheduled from July through September.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars in state bills are going unpaid due to the absence of a spending plan. Health clinics that serve the poor are threatening to close their doors, college students are forced to scrape by without their state scholarship funds, and child-care centers may have to shut down.

Partisan gridlock has gripped the Capitol for months as Democrats and Republicans squabble over how to eliminate the state's intractable $19.1-billion deficit. Thursday marked the longest period ever without a budget being sent to the governor's desk.

Those not getting paid are getting angry.

"They're just interested in being politicians, in getting reelected," said Cristina Gutierrez, director of a San Francisco care center for 150 children that has had to stop paying its employees because its state funds have halted. "They're not interested in helping the people they're supposed to serve."

Gutierrez, 57, called on lawmakers to give the millions they've raised to groups like hers that have been shortchanged by the missing budget. "Donate it," she said.

Among the most prolific fundraisers are those running for higher office.

State Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) is bidding to be California's next controller. Since July 1, he has added more than $400,000 to his campaign treasury. Two of his contributors, the Personal Insurance Federation of California and Sprint Nextel, which routinely have business before the state, have given lawmakers more than $22,000 and $35,000, respectively, in the same period.

In his race for insurance commissioner, Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) has collected more than $570,000 since July 1. Among his contributors with business in the Capitol are the Consumer Attorneys of California and the State Building and Construction Trades Council. Those groups have given lawmakers more than $30,000 and $100,000, respectively, in that time.

In August — peak bill-passing season—- rank-and-file legislators held at least 80 fundraisers, mostly catering to lobbyists at upscale eateries within a stone's throw of the statehouse.

The Legislature adjourned Aug. 31. The recess has given lawmakers more time for events such as Assemblyman Sandre Swanson's Labor Day getaway at the Las Vegas Paiute Golf Resort. For a minimum $1,500 donation to his campaign fund, Swanson (D-Alameda) promised donors "a weekend of golf, dinner … shows and spas!" according to an invitation sent to lobbyists.

Swanson chairs the Assembly's Labor and Employment Committee. He said he held the three-day bash in Nevada while his own state has 12.5% unemployment because the annual event has been held in Las Vegas for the last 15 years.

He would continue to "enthusiastically go out to raise funds" even without a budget, he said: "How do we communicate with the electorate if we don't raise money to get our message out there?"

Corean Todd of Oakland, a mother who traveled to Sacramento on Wednesday to protest the delayed budget and potential cutbacks, felt otherwise. Lawmakers "should be in their offices figuring out how to take care of California," Todd said.

Phone giant AT&T is another influential contributor with business before the Legislature. Since July 1, the company has handed out roughly $70,000 to more than 40 lawmakers, contribution records show.

The company was also the chief sponsor of a two-day fundraiser that Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) held at Pebble Beach in May, while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was unveiling a budget plan that would severely cut many services for the poor. The Democratic Party's deepest-pocketed donors were tapped at that event for up to $60,000 each.

This summer, legislators approved a proposal to allow phone carriers to disconnect land lines capable only of calling 911 centers — lines whose regular service was cut off for nonpayment or dropped by customers but still worked for emergency calls. AT&T estimates the change would save all phone carriers $100 million.

The bill, SB 1375 by Sen. Curren Price (D-Inglewood), awaits Schwarzenegger's signature or veto. AT&T gave the governor's political committee $25,000 in July.

Utility behemoth PG&E, whose exploded gas pipeline devoured a San Bruno neighborhood this month, has distributed nearly $90,000 to 29 lawmakers since July 1. The firm sent a check for $35,000 to the political account of Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who chairs the Senate's energy and utilities committee.

The check arrived a day after the San Bruno blast, the day Padilla announced a hearing to probe the cause of the explosion. Padilla has returned the contribution. PG&E did not return a Times call for comment.

The California Teachers Assn. dispersed $70,000 to legislators. The influential union had enough clout to scuttle a top-priority bill of Democratic state Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento. The proposal, SB 1285, would have changed rules for teacher layoffs.

AT&T and the teachers union each said the contributions had no connection with legislative actions.

shane.goldmacher@latimes.com

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