California Gift-Limits Bill Sidetracked Before Assembly Vote

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Sponsor Says Bass Asked Him Not To Seek Assembly Vote

Legislation to crack down on concert tickets, meal tabs, greens fees, Sacramento Kings tickets and other gifts to California lawmakers has been killed before reaching the Assembly floor.

The derailment marks the second time in two years that bills to restrict gift-giving by interest groups have been shelved with no organized opposition and no lawmaker voting against them.

More than 4,635 gifts totaling $256,789, excluding travel, were given to the state’s 120 legislators during an 18-month period ending July 1 by Capitol interest groups, records show.

Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, said Tuesday that he was asked by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass months ago not to seek a floor vote for his measure, Assembly Bill 1412.

Bass has not changed her mind as Sunday’s deadline looms for acting on bills introduced last year, said Torrico, adding that he has given up on pursuing the bill.

"Of course I was disappointed," said Torrico, a candidate for attorney general. "I just thought that we have to clean house. We have to fundamentally change the way we do our job in Sacramento."

Torrico declined to comment on reasons given for shelving the bill, saying simply that the notion of cracking down on gift-giving by interest groups has been contentious among colleagues.

Separately, legislators saw their salaries, benefits and living expenses cut by 18 percent in December.

AB 1412 was timely because the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission recently notified 38 lawmakers of discrepancies involving 66 gifts totaling $8,500 when disclosure records from recipients were compared with those of givers.

Both Torrico and Bass said the issue of tightening gift-giving limits is likely to resurface this year in broader discussions about improving government operations.

"This is something that we will be discussing as part of our comprehensive reforms," said Shannon Murphy, Bass’ spokeswoman, in a written statement. "Speaker Bass talked with Mr. Torrico. She has no problems with the issue being part of the reform agenda."

AB 1412 basically would have barred some of the state’s most powerful political players from buying legislators much more than a few cups of coffee or a Big Mac each month.

Torrico’s bill would have lowered the state’s limit on gift-giving to legislators from $420 per year to just $10 per month from any single source.

Derek Cressman, Western regional director for Common Cause, said Tuesday that he was not surprised that AB 1412 quietly was shelved in a year of statewide legislative elections.

"All too often, the Legislature is a place where good reform ideas go to die," he said.

Cressman said he understands why, in an occupation requiring lengthy negotiations over public policy, lawmakers might want to meet with interest groups over a meal rather than in an office.

"But pay for your own sandwich, go Dutch," he said. "I’m not opposed to people having a conversation over a glass of wine, but each person can pay for their own drink."

Republican Assemblyman Roger Niello said that gift-giving makes an easy political target but that the current gift limit of $420 is small enough to protect against undue influence – and all gifts exceeding $50 are required to be disclosed.

"We’re not talking about thousands of dollars in a campaign contribution; we’re talking about a few hundred dollars of accumulation of meals or something like that," Niello said.

The Fair Oaks Republican suggested that Torrico – who accepted hundreds of dollars in gifts in 2008 but said he rejected all gifts in 2009 – was pushing a crackdown to boost his campaign.

"It’s a great campaign issue for somebody running for attorney general," he said.

Torrico denied playing politics, saying it makes no sense to do so at the risk of alienating colleagues.

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, said that lowering gift limits would not necessarily make much difference, in a government as big and powerful as California’s, because temptation would continue for interest groups to wield

"And (lawmakers) who are truly corrupt aren’t going to be filling the disclosure statements anyway," DeVore said.

Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit political group, said the value of gifts by interest groups is not worth the loss in public image from accepting them.

"Most working people don’t get gifts every day, and in Sacramento they’ve gotten used to that," Heller said. "So it’s not easy for politicians to walk away from this perk. But they should run from it."

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Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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