© 1996 Los Angeles Times
Thursday, September 5, 1996 · Page A3
Lawmakers Listen When Money TalksGEORGE SKELTON
Two important bills with the word "electric" in their titles confirmed the public's most cynical notions last week of how laws get passed.
One measure was an electricity deregulation bill, a historic restructuring of the industry to allow consumers eventually to choose their power company. It was intensely lobbied by some of the biggest players in the Capitol, special interests that contribute heavily to legislators' election campaigns.
According to Common Cause, Southern California Edison gave state politicians $206,000 in 1995 alone, Pacific Gas and Electric $124,000 and San Diego Gas and Electric $86,000. They backed the legislation, as did other utilities and big business.
The second bill required electronic filing of campaign contribution and expenditure reports so the information could be laid out for all to see on the Internet. There was no money pushing this proposal, only some reformers and a handful of politicians talking about good government.
Of course, the big-donor deregulation bill passed and the measure with no juice got kicked aside.
Legislators and lobbyists will insist publicly that there is no relationship between money and motivation. And some might even believe it. But there is--always has been--too much of a pattern here for coincidence.
Some examples of how juice bills fared as the Legislature wrapped up its two-year session last weekend:
- The oil companies and agribusiness pushed through a bill opposed by environmentalists and district attorneys making it harder to prosecute water polluters. Arco, Chevron and Unocal donated a total of $541,000 last year.
- The insurance and real estate industries successfully lobbied for legislation creating a California Earthquake Authority to limit the insurers' liability. For the 1994 elections, the Assn. of California Insurance Companies gave legislators $904,000.
- Business interests were awarded $279 million in tax breaks over a three-year period. This was partially offset by $202 million in tax increases conforming California's law to the feds', but some of these hikes will be paid by individuals.
By contrast, proposals with no juice either were ignored or buried. Examples: Care for severely disabled illegal immigrants. Protecting mothers and their newborn infants against being discharged from hospitals prematurely. Constitutional revision. Political reform.
The point here is not that bills pushed by deep-pocket donors are evil. Or that money-clean measures are good. The point isn't merit. It's that campaign contributions generate legislative action.
More than likely, if big campaign bucks are not at stake, a bill will not wind up on the table for serious consideration--particularly on a Labor Day weekend.
"Those with the gold rule," notes Ruth Holton, executive director of California Common Cause.
There are exceptions. A bigger motivator than money, even, is public opinion. Potential votes.
The best example of that these days is fear of crime. No juice was needed to coax the Legislature into authorizing chemical castration of repeat child molesters. Or passing California's version of Megan's Law, allowing citizens to be informed when sex offenders move into their neighborhoods.
But few bills excite the public. The electricity deregulation bill, for instance, was so complex that few lawmakers followed it.
Certainly I'm no expert. I've only read newspaper reports: That the measure guarantees the utilities they will be bailed out by consumers for $30 billion worth of failed ventures in nuclear and alternative energy. That the bill was needed to signal some stabilization to Wall Street because the utilities' stocks have been shaky ever since the deregulation drive began. And that 70% of California consumers--read big business--pay 50% more for power than the national average.
There were compelling economic and political incentives to cut a deal.
No such motivation existed for the electronic filing bill, which would have brought campaign finance reporting out of the 19th century just as we're about to enter the 21st.
Lawmakers offered a myriad of petty excuses for not passing the bill, sponsored by Secretary of State Bill Jones: Partisan politics, fear of contributors being "stalked," not enough competition for software, potential for interstate fraud. . . .
Truth is, most legislators don't want the information to be any more accessible than it is right now--buried under stacks of crumpled paper in a bureaucracy.
Some privately have worried about reporters toting laptop computers to candidates' debates and being able to instantly look up embarrassing donations.
The public's cynicism keeps being stoked.
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