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Mar 12, 2007 - 01:45 PM

Arnold Is No Hiram Johnson

by Carmen Balber
Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to be remembered as the second Hiram Johnson, but having raised over $114 million from private interests since the 2003 recall, he has an uphill battle. In an effort to build up his reformer credentials, Arnold is pushing his version of campaign finance reform: a ban on fundraising during budget negotiations.

It's not a good idea to allow politicians to raise money from private interests as they're doling out the approximately $100 billion in public funds that make up California's budget. But the far worse corruption problem is the fundraising frenzy that grips the Capitol at the end of the legislative session each year, when the fate of hundreds, if not thousands, of bills is determined by lawmakers and the governor.

Last year, about 100 fundraisers were held in the blocks surrounding the Capitol during the last three weeks of session. Lawmakers moved from committee hearings where lobbyists pressed their agendas, to fundraisers where those very same interests paid $3,300 to schmooze them over bagels and coffee.

It is illegal to mix fundraising and lawmaking in California. The current artificial barrier -- politicians can't take a check inside the Capitol building, but anything goes across the street at Chops -- is woefully inadequate. But banning the practice for a few months during budget season will do little to stem donor influence over politicians. It's like a plan to ban steroid use, but only during spring training.

Any meaningful fundraising ban would have to encompass the entire period the legislature is in session, and the month the governor has to sign bills as well. Such a ban would, of course, mean just a few months a year for political fundraising. And as soon as the blackout period ended, checks would likely come pouring in from special interests rewarding those politicians who served them well.

Undue influence will never really end until private campaign contributions are replaced with public funds. A budget blackout period isn't likely to make a dent.

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