Mercury News: Term limits shift balance of power to special interests (Part Two)
For a look at just how influential the sponsors of bills can be, consider two days in the legislative life of Fuentes, the San Fernando Valley politician on a fast track.
The story emerges on videotapes of Senate committee sessions from June 2008. Fuentes was presenting four bills that had already passed the Assembly. All of them were sponsored, three by corporations that were seeking special help from the Legislature.
The private sponsors were SunCal, a real estate developer, which wanted to triple the potential penalty for buyers of high-end condominium units who back out of pre-construction contracts; Symantec, the software security firm, which wanted to exempt online retailers from a law that prohibits sellers from gathering personal data from credit card purchasers; and Venture Vehicles, which wanted the three-wheeled, partially electric motor vehicles it was developing to have access to carpool lanes.
In the hearings, the lobbyists for those companies not only gave testimony, as other supporters and opponents do. As is common practice, they sometimes sat right next to Fuentes as he presented the bills, answering questions and offering guidance.
In one session of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the committee finished with one bill and moved to the next one, Fuentes simply remained seated while the lobbyist for SunCal vacated the chair next to him and representatives of Symantec and the high-tech advocacy organization TechNet sat down.
Throughout, legislators and witnesses addressed "the sponsor and the author" as equal partners in the bills. And Fuentes and his cadre of lobbyists acted the part, pushing the legislation and responding to concerns in lock-step.
In the end, the privately sponsored bills Fuentes presented in the two days of hearings went 2-1, with the Venture bill and an amended form of the SunCal legislation passing the committee and ultimately becoming law, and the Symantec bill failing because of the lawsuit concern.
Fuentes received a $3,600 contribution from SunCal the same week the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly. And two months later, campaign expense reports show, Symantec contributed $2,000 to Fuentes' re-election campaign.
Fuentes, who was one of the two most junior members of the Legislature in 2007-08, declined repeated requests from the Mercury News to talk about his work with the interest groups that sponsor his bills. Lobbyist Aaron Read, who represents SunCal, among many other clients, called Fuentes an important partner. "He's a smart guy," Read said. "He's very diligent."