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The Favor Bank
Access and payback...

[by Jon Coupal] 10/12/05

Years ago, a prominent Sacramento lobbyist revealed the secret of his success to a group of political insiders. "You keep putting something in the favor bank," he told them, "and eventually they feel they owe you."

He went on to describe how he would manage to ingratiate himself with lawmakers, even going so far as to ask those with college-age offspring if they needed help getting them into the university of their choice.

We may never know how many pieces of legislation he personally impacted, but collectively, professional lobbyists have a big say as the laws we will live under are molded.

Jon Coupal

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

Over the years, under pressure from the media and public, lobbyists have refined their approach. No longer do they operate in the freewheeling atmosphere that spawned the famous advice from Speaker Jess "Big Daddy" Unruh that any legislator who couldn't eat the lobbyists' food, drink their liquor and make love to their women, and still say "no," didn't belong in the Legislature. (His actual language was a bit more graphic).

But one thing remains a constant: the favor bank is open for business. Each year, records show, lobbyists spend hundred of thousands of dollars on gifts to lawmakers, their families and staff members. These freebies include golf games, steak dinners, and tickets to concerts and sporting events.

And this is certainly not a partisan issue. Records show that Democrats and Republicans are equally adroit at scooping up the free goodies offered by lobbyists and their employers.

While these gifts are legal, if reported, many citizens ask if it is right for our representatives to accept them. They can't help but wonder what is expected in return.

It is difficult to describe these gifts as bribes in the classic sense, in that they come with no direct request for a specific response or action on the part of the lawmaker. However, there can be no doubt that the providers of these gifts are seeking favorable attention.

When Charles Keating, the S&L mogul who later served prison time for defrauding his customers, was being investigated, he was asked what he hoped to gain from the tens of thousands of dollars he had donated to members of the United States Senate. Did he expect to gain access, he was asked directly. Keating replied that he darn well hoped so.

While tickets to a basketball game may not guarantee the same access as thousands of dollars in contributions, the principle is the same. If the average constituent is seeking an office appointment with a representative at the same time as the lobbyist who provided expensive concert tickets to a sold-out venue, who do you suppose will get through the door first? Let's hope the constituent brought a magazine, because there may be a long wait.

Perhaps it is too much to ask, but since taxpayers provide state lawmakers with a generous salary, a per diem that more than covers their expenses, and a car, couldn't they just say "no" to all gifts and freebies from lobbyists? Closing the favor bank would help restore the people's confidence in the integrity of the Legislature.CRO

Jon Coupal is an attorney and President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

copyright 2005 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association



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