The most shameful habit of California legislators arguably is their annual summer shakedown of lobbyists. But it finally may be ending, at least in the Senate.
Senate leaders — rocked by the corruption scandals of two fellow Democrats — are hoping to quash the unsavory practice of coercing campaign contributions from special interests while high-stakes bills are pending in the Capitol.
Outgoing leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and his designated replacement, Sen. Kevin de Le?, D-Los Angeles, intend to push for a Senate rule banning peak-session fundraising, according to sources who asked not to be identified because they aren't ready to officially announce the landmark move.
Tentatively, the plan is to black out fundraising starting in late May, when budget negotiations kick into high gear, until the harried end of the legislative session around Labor Day. The ban would be lifted during a four-week vacation recess in July.
"We want to stop people from raising money when they should be focused on the public's business," one source says.
That reason is good enough. But there's also a more important one: PR. The current system portrays an ugly image and emits a rotten stench.
When a legislator leaves a Capitol committee room or house chamber where he has been casting deciding votes — with many more to come — and walks across the street to a watering hole to hold a fundraiser attended by lobbyists, it just plain stinks.
But it has been happening for decades.
August is notorious. There may be a dozen fundraisers scheduled each day the Legislature is in session, acting on hundreds of bills within hours.
It's legal corruption.
By law, legislators and donors cannot discuss legislation while checks are being written. That could be construed as a quid pro quo and bribery. But these are political pros who understand the body language of subtle shakedowns.
I've heard of legislators who allow lobbyists into their offices to discuss legislation. Then when the lobbyists leave and walk down the steps of the Capitol, their cellphones jingle and the lawmaker is reminding them of his upcoming fundraiser.
Lobbyists legally can't donate, but they routinely arrange for their employers and clients to.
"The lobbyist worries that he better contribute to the fundraiser because if he doesn't, the (legislative) member is going to vote against him," says longtime lobbyist George Steffes. "They all deny that. Legislators certainly do. But I know damn well that's why they're having fundraisers in August." Legislative insiders explain privately that the peak legislating period is when lawmakers enjoy their maximum leverage over special interests. It's also when Sacramento looks the slimiest.
Steinberg and De Le? intend to ask the Senate to adopt a house rule imposing the fundraising blackout. Although breaking the rule wouldn't be a crime, it could be enforced by the Senate itself. Violators could lose committee chairmanships or be yanked off panels, be uprooted to smaller offices or lose staff.
With a simple rules change, the blackout can be imposed this summer. It would be better to pass a bill and create a new law. But the Senate leaders want to avoid hassling with the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown.
One lawmaker, however, is pressing for legislation. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, a candidate for California secretary of state, has a bill to require a fundraising blackout from 100 days before the session's end to one week afterward.