Johnston denies conflict

Published on

The Stockton Record

State Sen.-turned-lobbyist Patrick Johnston says his clients gained nothing from his unpaid role helping Gov. Gray Davis hammer out a plan to bridge the $35 billion budget gap.

Critics say it’s inappropriate for Johnston, a Stockton Democrat who spent 20 years in the Legislature, to participate in closed-door sessions with Davis and top staff.

Johnston and fellow veteran lawmaker Phil Isenberg, both widely considered budget experts, took part in the private deliberations.

“It’s letting the fox control the door to the henhouse,” said Jamie Court, executive director of The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “It’s bad government.”

But Johnston said he held his tongue when budget talk turned to areas affecting his clients, including the health-care provider HealthNet, Pacific Life Insurance Co. and textbook publisher McGraw-Hill.

“Do we advocate for our clients? No,” Johnston said. “Would it be transparent to the governor and his staff? Yes. Would we get tossed out of the room? Oh, I expect so.”

Johnston said he also would not pass along inside information to his clients and that the proof would be in the pudding. When the governor releases his budget today, Johnston predicts his clients — insurers, publishers and financial interests — will be stinging just like everyone else.

Johnston, who cast uncomfortable votes 10 years ago, when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson called on lawmakers to match spending cuts with tax increases, said Davis is already in a position to offend almost all his major supporters.

“It would be an incredible thing to offend virtually every organization of size and political power while somehow favoring the clients of two former legislators that Gov. Davis served with,” Johnston said. “And, I might add, it would be pretty transparent. When we see the budget, it’ll be fair game for anyone to look at the clients Phil and I have and reach their own conclusion if there was any favoritism.”

Activist Court thinks he already sees favoritism.

“Isenberg represents the auto manufacturers, and what was the only tax break mentioned in the governor’s speech (Wednesday)?” Court asked. “A tax break for manufacturers.”

“This really stinks,” he said.

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