Chocolate Decadence

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The Los Angeles Times

Electric power industry officials called it a “Night of Chocolate Decadence” when they threw a soiree early this month at the home of one of their lobbyists. The little gathering honored self-described chocoholic Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno), chairwoman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee. But its real point was not dessert. The guests, affiliated with the state’s largest utilities and energy companies, ponied up $1,000 checks for Reyes’ campaign coffers, The Times’ Virginia Ellis reported Monday. A bill to re-regulate the electric power industry, strongly opposed by the industry, died days later in the committee that Reyes chairs.

The ethical nastiness of this and similar parties is bad enough. But how could anyone justify chocolate or any other decadence while California government is on the brink of bankruptcy and in the midst of a campaign to recall the governor? Or $1,000 checks for legislators who have failed to pass a budget on time, as the state starts cutting funds to nursing homes, trimming care to Medi-Cal patients and raising college and university fees? Were the party guests muttering, “Let them eat cake?”

The power and utilities industries have held similar “FUN-raisers” for at least three other committee members in lobbyists’ homes — a perverse new trend obviously designed to avoid the public attention that goes with fund-raisers held in Sacramento eating and drinking establishments.

When the re-regulation bill came up in committee in mid-July, not one of the 14 members of the Utilities and Commerce Committee voted for it. Republicans unsurprisingly opposed the bill for philosophical reasons. But that not a single Democrat voted for it was extraordinary. More scandalously, most of the Democrats — including Reyes — simply did not vote, thus evading a lawmaker’s duty. The measure was imperfect, but it was buried in a way guaranteed to raise suspicion.

The legislators and lobbyists protested that the contributions were not related to the regulation bill. One member pleaded ignorance, saying, “We had no idea when the bill was coming up.” No one needed to. They all knew why they were there.

This is another hidden effect of term limits. Lawmakers with no name recognition or voter base have to raise campaign money starting with their first days in office. This is especially true if they aspire to seek another office after their six-year Assembly limit.

Lobbyists are free to throw parties, but they shouldn’t be able to hide them. All fund-raisers should be made public in advance, no matter how small or private. And all fund-raising should be banned during legislative sessions to reduce the appearance of quid pro quo, spoken or not. A ban might also keep lawmakers focused on the peoples’ business, not their own.

Consumer Watchdog
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