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CMA Capitol Insight: Now it's in Gov. Brown's Hands



June 24, 2013
Area(s) of Interest: Advocacy 

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Greg Lucas, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.

 


 

Now it’s in Gov. Brown’s Hands

 

The Legislature approved a $145 billion spending plan on June 14 – one day before the constitution says they are supposed to send a completed budget to the Democratic governor. To use the managerial cliche, lawmakers were “incentivized” to complete their work on time because while voter approval of Proposition 25 in November 2010 allows budgets to be passed on a majority instead of a two-thirds vote, it also denies lawmakers their pay for every day past the 15th a budget fails to be passed. The budget before Brown is very similar to the one he proposed in January. Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, sought restoration of adult dental care for persons on Medi-Cal. Brown agreed to partial restoration, although the program doesn’t begin again until May of 2014, the last month of the budget year. In return, lawmakers gave Brown his revamping of how the state sends money to public schools, increasing payments for students with special needs and those learning English. As the CMA noted in its overview, lawmakers neglected to reject Brown’s $459 million worth of reductions in the reimbursement rate paid to doctors, dentists, pharmacists and hospitals serving Medi-Cal patients. The lower rates begin July 1. As part of the 2011 budget compromise, the Legislature OK’d a 10 percent cut in the reimbursement rate. The California Medical Association (CMA) and others unsuccessfully challenged the reductions in court. Brown is expected to sign the spending blueprint – by far the most significant policy action the state takes each year – today or later this week. It’s unclear how much spending he will line out with his blue pencil. CMA and other providers back SB 640 – by Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat – to rescind the cuts, which fall twice as hard on skilled-nursing facilities within hospitals, taking them back to 2008 reimbursement rates. Already underserved rural areas tend to have a higher percentage of such facilities.

 

Under 30 Club

 

Not by much, though. There are 29 invitations to fundraising events in Sacramento between June 24 and June 27, according to one of the services tracking such things. That constitutes a fairly light workout for legislators. It’s not uncommon during the final four weeks of the session for 20 or more fundraisers to be held daily. The minimum price for a ticket at this week’s offerings is $1,000. Most invitations make plain that the $4,100 maximum would be preferable, however. Doing the math: $29,000 is the minimum to attend every fundraiser this week and the maximum is $118,900. A plurality of the events are at restaurants or coffee shops within a block or two of the Capitol, for ease in swiftly transitioning from politics to policy and vice versa (there being a firewall between the two and all that). Tuesday and Wednesday usually have the greatest concentration of fundraisers. This week, 12 and 10, respectively. It’s rare for any Capitol fundraisers to be held on Thursday and certainly none after lunch.

 

 

What’s Wrong with Thursday?

 

The legislative workweek in Sacramento ends around midday on Thursday, when lawmakers return to their districts until Monday. Unless, however, there’s a three-day weekend. When that happens, the Assembly and Senate will meet briefly Friday morning to ensure there’s no more than 72 hours between that week’s Capitol legislative activity and the following week. If more than 72 hours elapse between sessions, lawmakers don’t receive $142-a-day per diem checks for the three days they’re not in Sacramento. If a Friday session is coming, the tip-off is fundraisers scheduled for Thursday afternoon or evening.

 

The Line Between Fundraising and Felony…

 

...Is explicit. It has been for many decades. Asking for money in return for voting a certain way on a bill or offering to perform some other legislative act beneficial to the contributor virtually guarantees a future stay at a federal penal facility. And yet 14 Democratic and Republican legislators, lobbyists and others were convicted as a result of a federal corruption investigation that came to light 25 years ago this August. Recently, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents served a search warrant on Sen. Ron Calderon, a Montebello Democrat, rekindling memories of “Shrimpgate,” so dubbed because the phony bill used by undercover agents to snare lawmakers centered on economic inducements to locate a shrimp processing plant in West Sacramento. Calderon denies any wrongdoing and federal authorities won’t reveal the target of their investigation. But the mere presence of the FBI in the Capitol causes all lawmakers to more scrupulously scrutinize their conduct. There’s plenty to scrutinize.

 

All About Access

 

Lawmakers sell access through campaign contributions. That’s the standard, cliched assessment by self-styled “reform” groups like Common Cause. The more money given, the more the giver gets in return. Sitting lawmakers and most candidates for public office say money doesn’t buy access. If having to solicit campaign contributions could be eliminated, they would be happy. But without money, they couldn’t be elected or re-elected. Regardless of which side in the debate seems most compelling, there are positions in the Legislature that have a higher degree of impact on the well-heeled interests who write the most campaign checks. For example, the chair of the Assembly Governmental Organization committee whose jurisdiction is “sin” – gambling, horseracing, liquor and the like – will receive more campaign contributions than the chair of the Human Services Committee whose purview is welfare, Medi-Cal and other state programs for the low-income ill or elderly. Committees like Governmental Organization – Health, Insurance, Utilities & Commerce – are known as “juice” committees because of the higher levels of contributions they attract.

 

 

The Juiciest

 

Other than the Speaker of the Assembly or the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the chair of the Appropriations Committee in either house would hold the greatest power over the fate of big bills. They have the most juice on the Number One “juice” committee. Bills with a price tag are usually the most significant in scope and the most likely to affect the interest groups with the wherewithal to contribute to campaigns. As part of their examination of legislation with a fiscal impact, the appropriations committees maintain a “suspense file,” where measures are held until after the governor issues his revised budget in May. The committee does this ostensibly to determine if there’s enough money in the budget to cover the costs of all the measures proposing to spend state funds or cut taxes. While the suspense file certainly serves as a catch-all for such legislation, it’s also a useful place to kill legislation simply by not removing it from the file. The committee chair helps determine what bills stay and which move forward. Recently, the chairs of the two appropriations committees sent out fundraising appeals. Sen. Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who wants to be the Senate’s leader, identified himself as “Chair, Senate Appropriations Committee.” Most, if not all, recipients of de Leon’s fundraising missive have measures either pending before or winding their way to de Leon’s committee. Lobbyists, who earn their living navigating the complexities of the legislative process, are painfully aware of this. If anyone knows the function of the Senate Appropriations Committee and who the chairman is, it’s members of the Third House. So why does de Leon – and his Assembly counterpart Mike Gatto, a Pasadena Democrat – repeat this well-known fact of their chairmanships? Is it a way to subliminally increase receptiveness to donating more than $1,000 and becoming a “patron” at $2,500 or a “sponsor” at $4,100? To elevate their status in the eyes of a potential donor? Merely to fill space? Whatever the reason, it’s perfectly legal for a lawmaker to include their title on a letter, one seeking a campaign contribution or not. It’s also perfectly common practice. And has been for some time. A March 13, 1995, article on legislative fundraising in the San Francisco Chronicle says a popular strategy “is to list which committees a legislator is on – a reminder to lobbyists of the subject areas the lawmaker can influence.”

 

On the Other Hand

 

The same 1995 article describes a not-so pristine fundraising appeal by then Assemblyman Mickey Conroy, an Orange Republican. “Probably a crime” is how then Senate President Pro Tempore Bill Lockyer, a Hayward Democrat, described Conroy’s pitch. Conroy had been recently named chair of the lower house’s Utilities and Commerce committee. He invited a “small, select group involved specifically in the utilities and commerce arena" at $2,500-a-head (big money back then) to sit in a luxury box with him and then Assembly Republican leader Jim Brulte, now head of the state Republican Party, to watch a Sacramento Kings basketball game. “This is like no other fundraising event you have attended," the article quotes Conroy as saying in his letter. "Consider: Size – Only a dozen guests. Venue – A fabulous 26-seat luxury suite. Access – Three-plus hours to discuss your utilities and commerce issues with Leader Brulte and me." The letter quite literally links access to campaign contributions. Conroy said he never approved the final draft and canceled the event, the article notes. Lockyer was probably right.

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