Capitol resistant to reforms;

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Lawmakers have derailed or defeated nearly every bill aimed to alter status quo in the Legislature.

Sacramento Bee

Despite miserable job-approval ratings, California lawmakers this year derailed or defeated nearly every bill aimed at overhauling how they campaign for office or conduct business in the Capitol.

The casualties included bills to reduce the influence of special interests by publicly funding campaigns, and to make legislative races more competitive by redrawing district boundaries.

Of 16 legislative or political reforms tracked by The Bee before the session ended Aug. 31, only three reached the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not yet decided whether to sign them.

Even the Republican governor, hugely popular with voters, found tough sledding in the Legislature for political reforms he endorsed.

Rejected were Schwarzenegger-supported measures to restrict campaign consultants from lobbying officeholders they helped elect, to open more legislative records to the public, and to ban state officeholders from accepting campaign contributions while a state budget is being negotiated.

Ashley Snee, Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman, said the governor has not given up.

“It may take longer than his first several months to get the reforms enacted, but he remains committed to these principles,” she said.

Jamie Court, president of the nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, characterized lawmakers’ performance as business as usual.

“Legislators feel they’re above the law because they write it,” Court said.

“Who wants to reform themselves? But given (last year’s gubernatorial) recall and the public disapproval rating of the Legislature, you’d think politicians might take the public’s concerns more seriously.”

Some legislative reforms were opposed by Democrats, others by Republicans. Many were killed in committee, meaning that officeholders recorded no vote that could be used against them by opponents in this year’s elections.

“There certainly wasn’t any inclination for legislative reform this year, which is little different from past years,” said Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Northridge. “There’s no question that the Legislature is dysfunctional.”

Fewer than three of every 10 California voters surveyed by the Field Poll in May expressed satisfaction with the Legislature’s overall performance. Fifty-two percent of the respondents gave lawmakers a thumbs-down and 21 percent had no opinion.

Some lawmakers caution against drawing conclusions based on the number of political reform bills defeated, however, because such a process fails to consider whether each bill has merit.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said he supports campaign finance reform, for example, but that the Schwarzenegger-supported bill to ban fund raising during the state’s budget cycle would make little substantive difference.

“OK, so you can’t have any fund-raisers until the budget is passed,” Nunez said. “What you do is, the 25 fund-raisers that you were going to have in May and June, you now have them in July and August. Does that change anything?”

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he supports and values AB 2949, which proposed public financing of campaigns. But he was neither surprised nor offended when it died.

“The reality is, a bill like that could not be a top priority at a time when we’re cutting welfare and education programs,” he said.

Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, proposed three political reform bills. All were defeated. She feels that most legislators are receptive to change, however, and she vows to try again next year.

“I’ll be back,” she said. “We need it, we need to clean our house, we need to clean up the way we do business.”

Political reforms awaiting Schwarzenegger’s signature or veto include SB 1449, to ban candidates from lending their campaigns more than $100,000 through bank loans; SB 1730, to move California’s primary elections to June; and AB 890, to close an alleged loophole allowing substantial donations without immediate disclosure to a political party committee in the final days of a campaign.

Measures that were sidetracked or rejected in the Legislature include:

* ACA 3 and ACA 19, to make an independent panel rather than lawmakers responsible for redrawing legislative boundaries every 10 years.

* AB 556, to freeze for one year the salaries paid to members of 14 state commissions, some of whom are legislative appointees earning more than $100,000 per year.

* AB 1412, to ban members of the Board of Equalization from voting on issues in which they have received $250 or more in contributions from a committee sponsored by a party or participant in the proceeding.

* AB 1980, to prohibit candidates from avoiding contribution limits by setting up ballot-measure committees that they control. Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante solicited millions of dollars for such committees, records show.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, singlehandedly killed legislation by Assembly Democrats Wolk and Dario Frommer of Los Angeles that would have placed restrictions on campaign consultants who later lobby officeholders they helped elect.

The two bills, AB 1784 and AB 1785, stemmed from a 2002 incident in which Richie Ross, a lobbyist and campaign consultant, angrily confronted top aides to Wolk and Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Chino, after the lawmakers failed to support a farm-worker health insurance bill he was promoting.

AB 1784 and AB 1785 passed the Assembly without opposition, but Burton held them in a Senate committee and no floor vote was taken.

Burton said such bills are demeaning to the Legislature. Lawmakers who can’t listen to a lobbyist, then make their own decisions should not hold public office, he said.

“If they need to be protected from that stuff, they’re in the wrong business,” he said.
The Bee’s Jim Sanders can be reached at (916) 326-5538 or [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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