The San Jose Mercury News
SACRAMENTO: When Gov. Gray Davis sat down to piece together the painful budget proposal he will unveil next week, he turned to two respected former Democratic lawmakers to help him decide what to cut and whom to tax.
But the retired legislators came into the room with more than just political acumen to guide their views: They came in as lobbyists who represent some of the most powerful special interests in California — insurance companies, car manufacturers, HMOs and Indian tribes.
The special access given to Phil Isenberg and Patrick Johnston sparked criticism from consumer activists and political reform advocates, who said neither man should be allowed to take part in closed-door budget talks where they can quietly help their clients and shape state policy without public scrutiny.
”I think the public should be concerned, if not outraged, over that kind of access granted to a lobbyist,” said Bill Allison, managing editor of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. ”It seems to me that it’s impossible to separate what you do as a lobbyist from your ability to give good advice.”
But Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio said the former lawmakers are able to do just that.
”These are two of the smartest guys in the state when it comes to the budget, and it would be foolhardy of them to do anything to benefit their clients because it would be very clear when the budget comes out,” he said.
Over the past few months, Isenberg — a longtime state assemblyman from Sacramento — and Johnston — who spent 20 years representing Stockton in the Legislature — have repeatedly taken part in confidential meetings with Davis to discuss ways to deal with a daunting $35 billion budget gap that will most likely force California to raise taxes and steeply cut spending.
Most lobbyists would kill for the kind of access Isenberg and Johnston get. Everyone from anti-tax advocates to doctors, from teachers to prison guards, is trying to fend off new taxes or deep cuts that could hurt their professions.
But because the details of the governor’s fiscal plan are a carefully guarded secret, most people won’t know what Davis wants to do until he publicly presents his plan Friday.
Sitting in on the talks, critics said, gives Isenberg and Johnston an unfair chance to fight against taxes and cuts that could hurt their clients. Or, it might help their clients get a running start in crafting plans to battle any proposed cuts.
Johnston did not return phone calls for comment. But Isenberg said that he makes sure to keep his mouth shut when the discussion turns to issues that affect his clients.
”Under the rules that I’ve imposed on myself, if there’s a specific interest of a specific client, I do not participate,” said Isenberg, who also advised Davis on last year’s budget.
But that’s not good enough for some consumer advocates.
Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, called Isenberg and Johnston ”zealous representatives for corporate interests” and called on Davis to reveal how much influence the two men had on shaping the budget.
“If they’re not working for constituents, if they’re not elected by constituents, then they’re not accountable to constituents,” Court said. ”This has been the pattern and practice with this governor: giving power to non-governmental employees that is typically reserved for those that work for the public.”
In his first term, Davis repeatedly turned to outside advisers for assistance in tough situations. It is a strategy that has sometimes backfired. During the energy crisis, Davis fired five energy traders after they were forced to reveal that they bought stock in one of the state’s biggest power companies.
Davis also has relied on political advisers with links to companies that do business with the state.
The governor’s chief political adviser, Garry South, has routinely taken part in administration strategy meetings while also working for a public relations company with state business. (South has said that he does not personally have clients with state business and makes sure to keep his political life and business career separate.)
And one of California’s fastest-rising lobbyists, Darius Anderson, has served as the governor’s top fundraising strategist.
The pattern is so troubling, Court said, that he called Friday on lawmakers to investigate.
”I see this as a very dangerous trend and, if there isn’t a public outcry, I really think there should be some new rules instituted,” he said.
Contact Dion Nissenbaum at [email protected]