Perata, others enter final workweek under clouds

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Half-million-dollar contribution from developers came after Senate leader pulled flood-plain legislation

Oakland Tribune

SACRAMENTO, CA — Amid a bout of bad publicity for top California officials, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said Monday he was reconsidering the shelving of bills, opposed by developers who contributed $500,000 to a campaign committee tied to the Bay Area Democrat.

The development came as legislators launched their final week of the 2005-06 session, also debating and sometimes incrementally advancing hundreds of other bills on widely varying subjects — from global warming and cell phones to cable deregulation and prescription drug costs.

But as bills bounced back and forth between houses, final action came on relatively few, ranging from sending the governor a charity gambling bill, to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signing measures to increase wagering limits at card clubs and to attempt to enhance safety on Vasco Road in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

The busy political time has been punctuated not only by the flap involving Perata’s flood bills and developer contributions but also by two other disclosures of the kind that raise eyebrows.

In one case, the wife of Assembly Speaker Fabian Nez, D-Los Angeles, won a $125,000 consulting contract this year with the South Coast Air Quality Management District at the same time the smog-fighting agency was pushing legislation to cut emissions on train engines.

In the other, at least 13 of Schwarzenegger’s appointees, their spouses and their companies have contributed more than $1.4 million to his campaigns, according to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer rights. Schwarzenegger won a gubernatorial recall race in 2003, partially on his vow to end politics as usual.

In Perata’s case, the Oakland Democrat said there was no connection between special-interest contributions and killing a package of eight flood-control bills, after they were weakened at the eleventh hour by the Schwarzenegger administration.

The California Building Industry Association made its donation to a committee formed to promote multibillion-dollar public works bonds on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Perata spokeswoman Jennifer Trost said the legislative leadership meeting “is tonight, so there will not be anything today” on whether the bills are being reinstated.

As lawmakers worked through hundreds of bills, with the Legislature scheduled to wrap up Thursday, a Bay Area lawmaker’s measure that would expand gambling was headed to the governor’s desk.

The legislation by Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, would allow nonprofit charitable organizations to raise funds through card-game “Casino Nights,” involving gambling other than just bingo.

The measure, though backed by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, comes as a state report indicates 1.5 million problem gamblers are costing California taxpayers about $1 billion annually.

But Torico said the bill “strikes a careful balance by allowing nonprofits to host ‘poker night’ fundraisers while imposing strict limits on the number of events that can be held and the value of prizes that can be awarded.”

The legislation would permit each nonprofit organization to host no more than one casino night per year and offer noncash prizes limited to values of $500 per prize and $5,000 per event. Cash prizes would be prohibited, and at least 90 percent of all proceeds would have to be contributed to a charity.

In other action:

– The governor signed a bill that allows local governments to allow much higher-stakes in games such as Texas Hold’em at 90 card clubs statewide.

– Lawmakers advanced a bill that would give Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa partial control over the city’s troubled school district.

The governor also signed a measure, by Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, aimed at enhancing freedom of speech protections for college journalists.

A recent appeals court decision creates uncertainty regarding whether California’s college and university presses enjoy, or are afforded, the same protections from censorship as the state’s high school presses.

This bill is aimed at eliminating that uncertainty.

“Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our democracy,” the governor said. “Students working on college newspapers deserve the same rights afforded to every other student journalist.”

In addition, Schwarzenegger signed legislation by Sen. Chuck Poochigian, R-Fresno, that is intended to help law enforcement agencies spot trends of identity theft and more effectively combat the growing crime.

The measure requires the state Department of Justice to publish data regarding identity theft arrests in its annual report of crime statistics. Separating identity theft arrest information will create more accurate criminal justice statistical data.

“Last year, 1 million Californians were victimized by identity theft — this is one of the fastest growing crimes in America,” said Schwarzenegger. “Law enforcement must utilize every tool available to stay ahead of the criminals who organize and steal personal information to commit fraud.”

Consumer Watchdog
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