By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
So you thought it worked like this: A kid grows up dreaming of making the world just a little bit better. So like San Fernando state Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, he learns how to blow-dry his hair and runs for office, promising he'll write new laws, better laws. He'll write the laws that will erase misery, obliterate oppression — laws that make the whole world sing.
That's what you thought, isn't it?
The truth is, in California, lawmakers like Fuentes don't actually make laws. They make deals.
It's easy to become confused. In Sacramento, a legislator who introduces a bill is called the "author." In reality, Fuentes and many of his colleagues didn't so much as lift a pencil. Or if he did, he handed it over to the PAC men and women, corporate executives or lobbyists who really did write the law before they went shopping for a legislator to carry it through the Capitol. And in Sacramento-speak, those special-interest folks who ghostwrite California's laws are called "sponsors."
But the worst thing about this system? Hands-down, it's the universality of it all.
Everybody is ghostwriting the laws. The Sierra Club. The teachers unions. Anheuser-Busch. The California Manufacturers Association. The city of Los Angeles. The California Retailers Association. Doesn't matter if they're from the right or the left. Everybody's in on it.
Talk about understatements.
The practice of letting special interests dictate the laws that legislators pass — right down to the very words and phrases — dates back to at least the 1940s in California. But now the practice has exploded to almost unprecedented levels.
Led by reporter Karen de Sa, in July, the San Jose Mercury News published a groundbreaking analysis of the 2007-08 legislative session, the most recent complete two-year session, and found that more than 1,800 bills — about 39 percent — were "sponsored" or actually written by special interests.
That's 702 laws ghostwritten and custom-designed specifically by the groups who benefited from them, then slapped with the name of one or another of California's 120 state legislators and introduced in the state Senate and Assembly as legitimate bills.
To top it off, the isolated Sacramento press corps rarely blows the whistle to alert the public about who is really writing California laws. When de Sa started working on her newspaper's online database, which any member of the public can use to look up the most compromised of the state's legislators, Capitol workers — including reporters — "would say, 'Sponsored bills? Well, duh. It's the way things are done,' " de Sa says. "I've never worked in the Capitol. But people in the Capitol who work there and who cover the Capitol have become far too jaded and accustomed to lobbyists pushing bills. Some of the [legislative] staff does work for lobbyists and the lobbyists become de facto legislators. [Legislative staff and the media] have accepted as routine what we as outsiders would think is a shockingly unethical way of doing business."
It didn't bother the politicians, either: An astonishing 60 percent of the ghostwritten laws put forth by legislators are passed by their colleagues in the Legislature.
The corporate sponsorship of legislation is so commonplace, in fact, that former assemblyman and current congressman Tom McClintock, Republican from California's 4th District, made news during his tenure in Sacramento for his refusal to front bills ghostwritten by special interests.
He made news because the squeaky-clean McClintock was the only one to simply refuse.
And then there's Felipe Fuentes.
The north San Fernando Valley's Assembly rep is a standout example of how lawmaking in Sacramento has devolved into something quite apart from lawmaking as people normally understand it.
The 39-year-old Democrat who represents Sylmar, Pacoima, Lakeview Terrace and Arleta in the California Assembly was listed as the "author" of 24 proposed bills in the 2007-08 legislative sessions. Yet despite all his bustle, Fuentes could easily win a nomination as the worst legislator in California — quite an achievement in a 120-member body with a 10 percent approval rating — because 10 of his laws were ghostwritten by special-interest groups.
Fuentes has the friendly demeanor of a politician hot on the campaign trail. On Election Day, he was out confidently campaigning for "another good Democrat," he says.
And he has a lot of confidence in the Sacramento system, which he insists isn't broken. "We have a robust process in the sunshine," he says, noting that organizational "sponsorship" of every bill is duly noted by the secretary of state, even if the public has no idea it's going on. "There isn't any one way to create good legislation."
But he lets special-interest groups write his laws. Then he puts his name on them.
Wasn't he elected to do the job he's letting the ghostwriters do?
His confidence wavers ever so slightly. "Well, off the record," he says in a rush, not giving a reporter the chance to say there's no such off-the-record deal in place, "it's not a yes or no answer, whether making laws this way is good or bad.