MATTOLE VALLEY, CALIFORNIA -- "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," the British Lord Acton once observed (in an 1887 letter to a bishop). It is one of those truths which prove themselves over and over. In the "absolute" category we have Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, and, currently, Saddam Hussein. Everyone touched by them suffered. In the other category, officers at Enron had the power to cook the books, and their work force and investors suffered.
California's constitution requires the annual state budget to be balanced. Governor Gray Davis, who inherited a surplus from his predecessor, has a budget for 2002-03 that is nearly $24 billion out of balance -- two months beyond the June 30 deadline. He has done nothing about it because he has been too busy emptying the pockets of special pleaders to pay attention. His campaign war chest is now at $30 million. He used a chunk of it on television last spring to demolish the Republican primary candidacy of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Davis figured that businessman William Simon would be the easier candidate to beat.
Simon has made some serious errors and continues to stumble toward election day November 5; nevertheless he has had one telling television commercial. It depicts the lobby of the Governor's Office wherein the receptionist turns down for appointments kids, seniors and other worthy citizen groups because they haven't contributed enough to Davis's campaign. It is hilarious in its execution. Satire may be the best way to illustrate the corrupting influence of money-grubbing on the governor of the nation's most populous state.
The newest group to learn the pay-to-play game here are Indian tribes. A few years ago California's legislature approved Nevada-style casinos for Indian tribes and these have popped up like mushrooms after the rain. They throw off a lot of cash and that has translated into major contributions to politicians. Davis, whose signature will soon be wanted on an Indian-inspired bill, has received more than $840,000 from tribes since January 2000. John Burton (brother of the late Phil Burton, long-time Democratic power figure in the U.S. House), is majority leader of the state senate and has received $485,000 from the tribes.
In its original form, the bill in question would have given Indian tribes the right to veto development on any public or private land they considered sacred which was near but outside a reservation. The bill was modified before it passed the state assembly by a wide margin last week. The process now permits local governments to override tribal objections to a particular development, but only after the petitioner has proved that "all feasible mitigation" of damage to the sacred site has been made. This is going to be a tall order in many cases.
"Development" in this context is broadly defined. Burton and his allies persuaded a Republican assemblyman, Bill Leonard, to carry the measure in the lower house. As an example, he cited a large oak tree held sacred by a particular tribal group. Infringement on the sacred site would have consisted of a power line that would cross the tribe's land in the vicinity of the oak. The tribe involved, the Pechanga Band of the Luiseno Indians, were a good example for Leonard to point to, for they are one of the state's most politically active tribal groups, distributing contributions hither and yon to helpful office holders.
The bill, once passed by the state senate and signed by the governor (when he finds enough time to get back to his desk from emptying donors' pockets) will put one more cinch in the regulatory garrote that is gradually choking California's economy.