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How Much From Special Interests?

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The San Francisco Chronicle
Jul 20, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by Mark Martin, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau

Both sides lashing out at special interests;

What they are is tied to who's talking
SACRAMENTO -- In publicly railing against legislative Democrats, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has increasingly referred to the political bogeymen that played a key role in getting him elected: special interests.

Schwarzenegger, who promised to sweep the Capitol of influential campaign contributors, charged Sunday that trial lawyers, unions and other special interests were "dug in" at the Capitol "like Alabama ticks, and we cannot get rid of them."

But as an ever-lengthening state budget fight has come to focus on rather obscure disputes involving a new labor law and school busing, Democrats are blasting back at the governor and Republican lawmakers for pushing the agenda of big business and even one private bus company.

Schwarzenegger has used the term "special interest" as a dirty word. But Capitol observers say the governor, who has collected millions of dollars in contributions from business, is using a selective definition.

"Special interest, for him, is anyone who disagrees with you," said Bob Stern, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

As part of budget negotiations, Schwarzenegger and legislative Republicans have demanded the repeal of two laws that affect big-time contributors to the governor and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Schwarzenegger campaigned in the recall election as pro-business.

But his fund-raising since taking office has angered consumer advocates, who say that it is excessive and that he has become too cozy with companies that have just as much at stake in government decisions as groups like the public-employee unions he has attacked.

A California Common Cause report issued last month noted Schwarzenegger was raising money at three times the pace of former Gov. Gray Davis. A majority of the money has come from business interests.

"He's up to his hips in mud while calling all the other politicians pigs," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which runs a Web site called ArnoldWatch.org that tracks the governor's fund-raising.

Margita Thompson, Schwarzenegger's press secretary, said, however, that the governor was an advocate for bettering the state's economy and that he defined special interests as "those entities that are standing in the way of doing what's best for California."

The governor and Republicans insist that two laws, which are the result of Democratic-sponsored legislation signed by Davis, should be repealed.

One allows employees to bring a civil lawsuit against employers for violating state labor laws. The other requires all school bus drivers to be paid a living wage.

Both laws highlight substantial differences in the world view of the two parties. And both laws have champions and detractors who have much to gain or lose.

Affected by the laws, for example, are the California School Employees Association, which contributed more than $2.5 million to Democrats and Democratic causes since 2001, and development and construction companies, which have given Schwarzenegger more than $4 million.

Democrats say the lawsuit law simply protects employees against companies that don't follow state labor codes.

But Schwarzenegger and other Republicans, backed by the state's Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, say it opens up a whole new field for trial lawyers and hampers California's business climate.

Chamber officials are distributing copies of an online book published by a law firm called "Sue Your Boss," which explains the new law that went into effect in January.

The other measure requires school districts to ensure that any private business under contract with the district pays its employees a living wage.

Democrats and the California School Employees Association, which represents publicly paid bus drivers, say the law allows for bus drivers to earn a decent living.

But the law is adamantly opposed by some school officials and Laidlaw International, which operates school bus services in California and around the country, and could lose business because of the law. Opponents say the law allows the state to set policy that should be decided at the local level.

Schwarzenegger shouldn't oppose bus drivers and employees, according to Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, who at a press conference Monday said the governor's use of the "special interest" term "sort of galls me."

Last week, Burton said that "one person's special interest is another person's champion."

Thompson argued that the governor was staking out positions that would free California businesses from frivolous lawsuits and allow school districts to save money better used in the classroom.

"It's an issue of choosing school children over unions," she said of the school law.

But Stern noted that Schwarzenegger's attempt to link Democrats with special interests was telling only half of the story. Republicans are influenced by contributors, too, he said.

"A special interest is anyone that wants something from government," he said. "The governor should be an equal-opportunity basher."

OPPOSING VIEWS

"The governor was willing to give on some issues, and the Democrats need to also compromise. We can meet somewhere in the middle."
-- Margita Thompson, spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"The governor was a guy who wanted to get the job done. Now hes just being divisive."
-- State Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland.

"The governor came into office trying to get the budget under control. Democrats want to spend." -- Assembly Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield.

"No matter what happens, there will be a Democratic majority in the Assembly and the Senate."
-- Senate President Pro Tem John Burton D-San Francisco.
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E-mail Mark Martin at markmartin@sfchronicle.com




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