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Los Angeles Times
Aug 18, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by Robert Salladay, Times Staff Writer

End of Session Frenzy in Capitol;

Lobbyists dash to lawmakers' fundraising events as hundreds of bills face action.
SACRAMENTO -- Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh knows his supporters are busy these days, so his $1,000-a-head fundraiser scheduled for this morning near the Capitol is sort of a drive-by.

"A breakfast basket will be provided for those of you on the run," the Democratic 2006 state Senate candidate from South Gate wrote on the invitation.

As anxious lobbyists bounce around Capitol hallways before the frantic end of session in two weeks, they have also been running from fundraiser to fundraiser. Not coincidentally, it is the busiest time of the year for passing legislation -- much of it vitally important to the lobbyists who are being asked to contribute.

Over three days this week, at least 50 campaign fundraising events have been scheduled near the Capitol. Lawmakers have planned private gatherings in Irish pubs, Mexican restaurants and secluded clubs, at the Esquire Grill & Chops, and the Exploding Head Gallery with its gloomy paintings as a backdrop.

"Let's face it, any human being would rather be somewhere else than eight to nine stand-up cocktail parties," said Dennis Mangers, president of the California Cable & Telecommunications Assn., who accepted 28 separate invitations Tuesday and Wednesday, from breakfast near the Capitol to evening cocktails by the river.

Campaign finance experts said the rush to raise money at the most critical moment for hundreds of pieces of legislation has become a Capitol tradition that they say is blatant and questionable.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made ending the flood of special-interest fundraising a centerpiece of his campaign. Although he sponsored legislation to ban fundraising during the budget negotiating period, he did little to push the Legislature to pass the bill. The measure is considered dead for the year.

Now, with an election approaching, there are more fundraisers scheduled in this end-of-session period than at any time in recent memory.

Experts say it is evidence that despite attempts by California voters over the years to curb campaign fundraising, little has changed. Under Proposition 34, the new campaign finance law limiting donations to $3,200 for lawmakers, the price is simply smaller now for a few canapes, a little alcohol and access to the powerful.

"In a sense, it's very cost-effective," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit group that monitors campaign financing. "You are talking about donating $1,000 and getting a benefit of $5 million, $10 million and $50 million. It's almost petty cash in terms of a return on access."

Stern said the price may be lower to hobnob with lawmakers, but the power that Assembly members and senators hold over their legislation this week and next is enough to compel lobbyists to show up at fundraisers. Nearly 600 pieces of legislation are being considered this week and next.

"It's really the fear of not giving. If you don't give, will there be retribution?" said Stern.

"This is the ugliest of many fundraising traditions in Sacramento," said Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit based in Santa Monica, "in which politicians use the maximum leverage with their donors because, in the next few weeks, special-interest issues will either be won or lost."

But Firebaugh said there is so much scrutiny of the Legislature that lawmakers know better than to make a direct link between their votes this week and the money they raise. Most lawmakers, he said, assume the FBI already is running a sting, like "Shrimpgate" in 1988. In that operation, a federal agent posed as an Alabama businessman seeking a tax break to open a West Sacramento shrimp-processing plant. It led to convictions for five lawmakers.

"We're cognizant that Californians are skeptical about politics, politicians and the machinations of the Legislature," Firebaugh said. "And we also know there are some pretty stringent laws. We are incredibly careful to make sure there is no link between campaign fundraising and the activity on this floor."

As campaigns in California become more expensive, candidates in competitive districts have been forced to work harder because of the lower contributions limits under Proposition 34. That has prompted the need for more events, since a single contributor can no longer give unlimited amounts of money to candidates.

Fundraising schedules are not public information under the law, but a newsletter, the Capitol Morning Report, on most days lists "The Daily Bread," a collection of scheduled events it uncovers around Sacramento. Capitol fundraisers usually occur on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays because lawmakers arrive late on Mondays and usually return home early on Thursdays.

Some of the most powerful players in Sacramento are raising money this week. The California Democratic Party is hosting a reception honoring Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). Because it raises money for the party to support state candidates, the fundraiser can collect up to $26,600 from each Aces High sponsor.

Assembly Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) is hosting a wine and cigar event this week, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) is holding a reception for Ira Ruskin, an Assembly candidate from the Bay Area. Buy five tickets to that event and get "special recognition," according to the invitation.

Even though they have not yet been elected, several candidates for the Legislature are hosting fundraisers as well among Capitol lobbyists. This week, Carole Migden, chairwoman of the California Board of Equalization and state Senate candidate from San Francisco, is hosting a cocktail party and private cruise on the Sacramento River Delta on Thursday for "Migden Maniacs."

For cable executive Mangers -- a former assemblyman from Orange County and a lobbyist for 24 years -- policy is never mixed with fundraisers.

"I never think of it as buying," Mangers said. "I think of it as these are legislators who, unlike other people, have to get reelected to keep their jobs. Whether they like it or not, they have to raise large sums of money. During the day, there is policy and then I go out and engage their campaign side. I never mix the two. I never talk about campaigns during the day and I never talk about policy at fundraisers."

The Legislature this year rejected an attempt to install taxpayer financing of campaigns, which would potentially end questions of lawmakers trading political favors for contributions. The measure, AB 2959, cleared its first committee test but died in the Appropriations Committee last May and wasn't given further consideration.

McCarthy, the Assembly Republican leader, said it's natural to raise money now, since the state is less than three months from a major election.

He said that most Republicans are going to vote "no" on the remaining legislation anyway, since most of it is sponsored by Democrats.

"I always find the people vote how they are going to vote" regardless of campaign contributions, McCarthy said.

Schwarzenegger, his aides say, is now considering a ballot initiative that could include some campaign finance and other government reforms such as taking away the Legislature's right to draw its own districts and raise money during certain periods.

But the governor is raising money for his own campaigns at more than twice the rate of former Gov. Gray Davis, drawing questions from campaign finance experts about his commitment to changing the system after winning a campaign based on government reforms.

"Politicians can tell us that they won't be influenced by a special-interest donation that came the night before a big vote until they are blue in the face," said taxpayer activist Heller, "and Californians will know better."

Fundraising frenzy

Nearly 50 campaign fundraisers are being held in Sacramento this week as California legislators consider hundreds of bills before the session ends Aug. 31. Among the legislators and political groups with scheduled events:

-- Republican Party of Riverside County. Breakfast, Platinum Co-Host $10,000; Gold Co-Host $5,000; Silver Co-Host $2,500.

-- California Democratic Party. Reception honoring Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). Aces High, $26,600; Host, $10,000; Sponsor, $5,000; Ticket $2,000.

-- Friends of Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) Republican for Assembly reelection 2004. "Tasting of fine port wines and cigars." Pioneer Membership $3,200; Ticket $1,500.

-- Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) for Ira Ruskin, Assembly candidate. Reception, beverages and hors d'oeuvres. Major Sponsor $3,200 (five tickets and "special recognition"); Event Sponsor $1,000.

-- Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) for Senate reelection. Breakfast and after the session "a relaxing free round of golf with Sam" at Winchester Country Club (date to be determined after session ends). Sponsor $3,200; Ticket $1,000.

-- Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) for Senate 2006. "These are busy times so a breakfast basket will be provided for those of you on the run." Sponsor $3,200; Ticket $1,000.

-- Families for Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando) for reelection 2004. Breakfast, Co-Host $2,000; Ticket $1,000.

-- Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) for Senate 2006. Reception hosted by Southern California Edison, Sponsor $3,200; Ticket $1,000.

-- Dario Frommer (D-Los Angeles) for Assembly 2004 reelection. Reception, Patron $3,200; Sponsor $2,000; Ticket $1,000.

-- Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) Exploratory Committee for the Office of Lieutenant Governor primary election 2006. Reception, Sponsor $5,300; Ticket $1,000.

-- Committee to Reelect Assemblywoman Gloria McLeod (D-Chino). Reception, $1,000.

-- Friends of Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) for Assembly reelection. Breakfast, $1,000.

-- Alan Nakanishi (R-Lodi) for Assembly reelection 2004. Reception, $1,000.

-- Friends of Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach) for Assembly. Breakfast, Sponsor $3,200; Friend $2,000; Ticket $1,000.

-- Jack Scott (D-Altadena) for Senate 2004 reelection. Reception, $1,000.

-- Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) for Assembly 2004 reelection. Breakfast, $1,000.

-- Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) for Assembly 2004 reelection. Reception, Sponsor $3,000; Host $1,000.

Source: Capitol Morning Report.

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