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Mushroom Season in Poisonous Sacramento

Each September, in a flurry of deadline activity, 120 California legislators try to push through last-minute bills that have never been debated, or that seem to spring from nowhere, or that were ghostwritten by big pharma or big labor — yet are peddled by a sitting legislator who claims to be the “author.”

The controversial September crush of laws designed to please narrow special-interest groups is a big reason that about 1,000 new laws stream to the governor’s desk for his signature each year. The worst of them have been nicknamed “mushrooms” by Sacramento wags because they arise entirely in the dark, seemingly overnight.

This year, one “mushroom” attracting headlines is by Assemblyman John Perez, who represents the Eastside of Los Angeles and is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s first cousin. His Assembly Bill 813 would benefit just one Colorado billionaire, Philip Anschutz. First reported by the Los Angeles Times, AB 813 would waive a law that currently prohibits Club Nokia and other entertainment venues from slathering the interior of their spaces with ads that promote the alcohol companies whose products they sell at a steep profit.

Anschutz wants to sell big ad spaces inside the unattractive, boxlike Club Nokia, near Staples Center, to squeeze out more profit. The state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control this year ruled such liquor-ad peddling to be illegal.

Perez wants to exempt Club Nokia, and only Club Nokia, from the law — setting off an outcry about the ethically challenged California Legislature. Tracy Westen, vice chairman and CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies, calls Perez’s bill, “special-interest legislation at its worst ... to harness the power of all 120 legislators and the governor to benefit one particular person or company.” Westen adds, “We’ve got problems with prisons, a water system that’s dangerous, our schools are crumbling — and the Legislature spends its time giving an economic benefit to one man.”

Entertainment venues that won’t get the special waiver aren’t happy. Sharon Sandow, president/CEO of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, says “This puts other venues, such as those in West Hollywood, at a disadvantage due to no fault of their own.”

Perez has been slammed before for his calculated politics, beginning with his controversial election victory last year in an Eastside Assembly seat previously held by Fabian Núñez, who was forced out by term limits.

An L.A. Weekly story headlined “Who needs voters? The fix was in on the Eastside last night” explained how two well-known candidates, Arturo Chavez and Ricardo Lara, mysteriously quit the race for Núñez’s seat long before Election Day, guaranteeing that Perez would win. First, Chavez dropped out of the race. A week later, Lara dropped out. Lara then announced he had been handed a plum job by Perez’s first cousin, the mayor, who appointed Lara to the Planning Commission.

Perez’s election was widely criticized by city activists, including the outspoken Zuma Dogg, who blogged: “Antonio’s anointed candidate, who will be your new Assembly member pulling the levers for his cousin Antonio, is John Perez.”

Since then, Perez has rapidly moved up the power grid in Sacramento — he is now chairman of the 50-member Democratic Caucus in the Assembly, which for about five decades has controlled the debate and the votes in the lower house of the Legislature. But while Perez has done well as a party functionary in the Capitol, he has not fared well with the public.

Perez was a lead spokesman for the disastrous “Yes on 1A-1E” ballot-measure campaign that would have dramatically raised California taxes, paid down the deficit and propped up school funding. The package of measures lost by a landslide.

A new statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Legislature as a whole, and individual legislators like Perez are all deeply unpopular, with many Californians believing special-interest money is running roughshod. Dennis Hathaway, an antibillboard activist who has watched AEG’s power grow under Villaraigosa, says of Perez’s law written just for Anschutz: “It’s another case of what AEG wants, AEG gets, whether it’s in City Hall or Sacramento.”

The PPIC survey says that 73 percent of Californians feel Sacramento is controlled “by a few big interests looking out for themselves.”

That’s a new high for public distrust of California politicians in the 11-year history that PPIC has been tracking this topic, and a new low for Sacramento. Soon after PPIC’s poll came out, the state Senate in the wee hours of last Saturday killed the Club Nokia law, its leaders embarrassed over headlines about Perez’s blatantly special-interest Assembly bill.


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