Amid budget crisis, California legislators still wined, dined on lobbyists' dime

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It was Valentine's Day eve 2009, and the state faced a $40 billion deficit and a deadline.

The governor and legislative leaders had just agreed on a package of sobering tax increases and spending cuts that would affect nearly every Californian. But the package awaited review by the full Legislature.

Conservatives were decrying the tax increases, Democrats were trying to stand firm, and national newspapers were opining on whether California would go bankrupt.

That same night, AT&T spent $1,800 to send 18 legislators, legislative staffers and their children to "Disney's High School Musical: The Ice Tour" at Arco Arena.

Such contrasts were commonplace, according to a Bee analysis of gifts to legislators over 18 months ending in June. While their constituents coped with the worst recession in decades and the state suffered through another budget crisis, California's legislators and leaders ate about 8,000 free meals, pocketed about 2,000 free event tickets and accepted enough flowers to open their own shop, all courtesy of lobbyists.

The final tally: From January 2008 through June 2009 lobbyists gave legislators, their staffs and relatives about $610,000 in gifts, according to a Bee analysis of thousands of lobbyist disclosure reports. State constitutional officers, regulators and state agency workers collected an additional $233,000 in gifts.

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