Tuesday, August 26, 2008

End-of-session frenzy for campaign cash

SACRAMENTO — The appeals lawmakers make for cash can sometimes have the feel of a carnival bark: "Start your morning right!" one fundraising letter announced, "Mimosas, bloody Marys and a light breakfast!"

Others promise a night of luxury: "Private box, fabulous food, special commemorative gift," at a minor-league baseball game in Sacramento — for only $1,000.

Even amid the constant hunt for greenbacks in the Capital city, the prowl for campaign contributions has been particularly intense in the past few weeks. It is, after all, the traditional end-of-session frenzy, when budget negotiations are still roiling and lawmakers are tackling hundreds of bills, while lobbyists and their clients make their case, often supplemented — separately, of course — with a little cash.

Lawmakers raked in nearly $300,000 in a single day last week and have totaled about $2.7 million in contributions since they returned from their summer recess Aug. 4 — though much more money was likely raised through the controversial and widespread practice of taking pledges. Through Thursday, they'd approved about 700 bills and held 107 fundraisers, 40 more fundraisers than 2007's final weeks.

It's an environment that makes government watchdogs nervous.

"The pernicious impact of the end-of-session fundraising is the appearance that contributions are purchasing influence," said Carmen Balber, researcher for Consumer Watchdog. "And the Advertisementperception that campaign contributions are buying influence is multiplied when a vote comes within days of a lawmaker cashing a check."

Starting on Aug. 6 — 90 days before the Nov. 4 election — candidates were required to report their contributions within 24 hours of receiving them.

To avoid the appearance of influence, many lawmakers simply take pledges of contributions at their fundraisers, to be cashed at a later date when votes have been long forgotten. Under state rules, it is only necessary to report contributions when the check comes in.

For instance, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, held a major fundraiser last week, but that night's earnings were not reflected the next day on the Secretary of State's Web site. That's because donors either paid ahead of time or have pledged to pay her at some point in the future. Though only $10,000 was reported the day after her event, she made more than $100,000, her fundraising consultant, Dan Weitzman, said.

"In Sacramento we operate on pledges," Weitzman said. "No one walks in with a check."

Critics say the practice is deceiving.

"It's misleading the public as to when the money was really given," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. "They're deferring the disclosure. They don't want to list people who were at their fundraiser. They're trying to give the appearance the money was not given at the time legislation was being considered."

By day, lobbyists clutter the Capitol corridors just outside the legislative chamber as they monitor the fate of bills. By night, those same lobbyists and their clients are hobnobbing with lawmakers at restaurants, pubs and cafes near the Capitol.

The law is clear: Votes are not to be exchanged for money. So lawmakers and lobbyists avoid talking policy at fundraising events. But they don't have to. Their needs are implied. Lawmakers need money for future campaigns, to maintain their offices, travel or host lunches and meetings. Lobbyists want legislation passed or killed. And they have the money.

Lawmakers say they raise money year-round, but there is none of the urgency in March or June that there is in August, when bills face their final fate. Typically, sessions end Aug. 31, and all bills that fail to pass die for the year. Interest groups stage high-stakes "education" campaigns, buttonholing lawmakers in the hallways or private meetings as they seek votes for or against bills. Contributing cash is just part of the accepted influence-peddling game played out across the country.

Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, admits August is a good time to raise money "because everybody is here," but he tries to time his fundraisers for early August "so it's not right in the middle of all this. I agree with the governor that there should be a ban at this time of year when you've got a lot of bills going through here."

DeSaulnier has raised $24,900 since the reporting requirements kicked in Aug. 6.

As much as she decries the system, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, is also on the fundraising circuit. Hancock, who has sponsored numerous bills to swap the current campaign finance system with public financing, has raised $30,400 since Aug. 6.

"I find it uncomfortable, yes," she said, "but the truth is you get used to it because it's come to be a pervasive culture, the need to raise money."

Still, she said, it's silly to think lobbyists have more influence over lawmakers at the end of session than any other time.

"There is no time when it's less compromising than the other," she said. "Even if you were to prohibit fundraising (in the final weeks of session), what does that do? It changes the date of fundraisers. Whatever influence there is, it is a constant."

Hancock says there is one way to end the game of hide-and-seek over lobbyist influence — or the appearance of it: public financing.

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