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Putting a lid on California lobbyists' gift bags

A state Senate bill would close a loophole in state law by severely restricting the value of gifts that lobbyists can give to lawmakers and their families.

June 25, 2011

The California Legislature has strict deadlines for proposing bills, moving them out of committee and getting them to the other house. And there are easy ways to abuse or circumvent those rules. For example, a lawmaker whose bill went down to defeat early in the session can revive it simply by stripping language from a more successful piece of proposed legislation that is headed to a vote and inserting the language from the bill that didn't make it the first time around. This tactic often seems sneaky and underhanded. The Legislature should either adhere to its own strict deadlines or get rid of them.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't some bills that we're pleased to see resuscitated by the "gut-and-amend" ploy. A new/old bill by two centrist California senators is a case in point.

Sens. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) and Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) are now offering SB 50, which would close a loophole in state law by severely restricting the value of gifts that lobbyists can give to lawmakers and their families. If the bill sounds familiar, it should: The Senate got some deserved negative attention in May after killing a similar bill. Blakeslee has introduced other such bills in the past, and they have all met the same unhappy fate.

He deserves credit for trying again, and Corea deserves props for helping him out late in the session by gutting his bill dealing with High-Speed Rail Authority board members to make way for Blakeslee's gift language.

Gifts from lobbyists to legislators are already restricted, but a lobbyist's "employer" — the company that hires the lobbyist — is currently free to shower lawmakers with tickets to ballgames, concerts, race tracks, spas, amusement parks and the like. It can buy them skiing or fishing trips, and can bestow retail gift cards.

And of course there's nothing in current law that bans a lawmaker, stuck for a few days or weeks without a salary because the deadline for passing a budget has slipped by, from reminding a lobbyist that times are tough and that a pack of tickets to take the family to Disneyland sure would be nice.

The bill's opponents, including lobbyists as well as lawmakers, deny that free tickets or vacations sway anyone's vote. So lobbyists don't give gifts in order to win any special Capitol access or influence that the rest of us lack? They give them just to be nice? Please.

The gut-and-amend version of the Blakeslee-Correa bill may meet the same fate as earlier gift-restriction attempts, but it's worth a try. Lawmakers without paychecks may be especially interested in gifts these days, but if they're smart they'll also be especially interested in passing a bill that will win them a rare thumbs-up from the voters.

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