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It's always Christmas in Sacramento

March 13, 2013|By Patt Morrison
  • Sutter Brown visits The Times' Globe Lobby just before election day in November, campaigning for his "dad's" state ballot tax measure. Sutter was the recipient of unspecified gifts from Scotland's first minister.
Sutter Brown visits The Times' Globe Lobby just before election day… (Los Angeles Times/Mark…)

Somebody must think the way to a governor’s heart is through his … dog?

Sutter Brown, California’s first canine, got unspecified gifts from Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, and I’d love to know what they were – haggis jerky? Smoked salmon treats?

Sutter’s “dad,” Gov. Jerry Brown, got a bottle of whiskey from Salmond as well. Considering that Jerry Brown 1) is Irish – it was the Irish poet Yeats he quoted in his state of the state speech in January, not Robert Burns, and 2) is or appears to be pretty abstemious, the word “re-gifting” is the first to come to mind. (As a boy, Salmond had a Cairn terrier named Shadow; maybe if Sutter had been a Cairn or a Scottish deerhound and not a Welsh corgi, Salmond would have been even more generous.)

It’s time for the required disclosures of these goodies, which to reporters is a gift that keeps on giving.

Reading the lists of gifts bestowed on our elected officials is a little bit like reading what other people got for Christmas -- part envy, part schadenfreude. Really, would I want to be burdened by the $109.30 worth of nail polish that the Personal Care Council gave to Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee?

Brown, back in his “era of limits” first governorship, understood the instant iconography of the motor-pool dreary-blue Plymouth he drove; it had a quarter-million miles on the odometer when it sold at auction in 1983 for $3,600.

It’s complicated. Not all political gifts are de facto bad, I suppose, but the Olympian lengths that the Legislature goes to to get around voters’ clear intents to ban these gifts make you wish that they applied the same consistent ingenuity to budgeting.

In August, when the Legislature may have figured that voters were on vacation, it helped its own holidaying interests: it killed a measure barring company lobbyists from giving legislators tickets to theme parks, pro sports events, golf games and spa treatments. And last year, Tulare’s Republican assemblyman, Connie Conway, got to head on down I-5 with Disneyland Park passes worth $200, and $250 in racetrack tickets and meals from Del Mar’s Thoroughbred Club.

There’s a $10 monthly limit on gifts from registered lobbyists to legislators, and $440-a-year gift-value cap from any other single source, and those rules can net listings like this gift, which made its way to Yee’s office and was scrupulously recorded thusly: $1.89 Coke and straw from Coca-Cola.

The governor fared rather modestly in the gift tally, $2,545 compared to Speaker John Perez’s $17,800.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave him a lonely-hearts nosebleed-seat single $150 ticket to a Lakers game, and Newsweek ponied up another for $250 for Brown’s ticket to the White House correspondents dinner. The governor of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon gave him a $185 bottle of tequila, which way outdoes the $40, presumably house-brand, bottle that Fremont’s Democratic Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski got from Arteagas Food Center.

This is modest stuff compared to the cornucopia showered upon Arnold Schwarzenegger: handmade boots, an Armani bathrobe from Signore Armani himself, and a Mongolian shield (for deflecting Democratic criticism?) -- a one-year total worth about $15,000.

The biggest-bucks listings come not from the promotional boxes of California citrus or rice or souvenir crystal paperweights but from travel that is arguably to benefit California and educate legislators. But one man’s fact-finding mission is another man’s junket, and legislators have gone to New Zealand, Maui, South Korea, Australia, Brazil and San Diego on someone else’s dime. (Why do they never seem to go to the nation’s or the world’s Rust Belts?) Thus it has been since the Jet Age, when L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty got the nickname slapped on him like a luggage label: Travelin’ Sam.

Schwarzenegger clocked thousands upon thousands of miles as governor. When he was elected, he refused to take the governor’s $206,500-plus salary. If he had, he could have spent it on his travels and taken it as a business expense and saved himself a lot of trouble.

Instead, he took the heat. Because an organization named the California State Protocol Foundation – which I called “Air Arnold” -- was founded to raise as much money as it wanted to fund the governor’s fancy travel, and was able to do so in secret donations, until The Times’ coverage forced the foundation to name donors. They turned out to be CEOs, millionaires and billionaires who not only got tax deductions as a consequence, but undoubtedly got their calls to the governor’s office returned when the rest of us can leave the Capitol knee-deep in letters and faxes and never hear a peep back.

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