Plastic pipe: Donors again get what they want

One theme has run through California government from the moment Democrat Gray Davis was elected governor nine years ago right up to today. It is this: Donate big campaign dollars to the incumbent and you’ll get what you want.

Davis, of course, never admitted to this while in office. Neither does current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who insists no one gets special consideration, no matter how much he may contribute.

“I am always led by what is best for all the people of California,” he says, echoing the mantra of every politician who ever took a campaign dollar.

But with all politicians, it’s wisest to watch what they do, not what they say.

And when Schwarzenegger’s remark is linked to what his administration actually does, it’s as if the governor were really saying “What’s best for my donors is best for all the people of California.”

Latest example of a policy decision favoring one of the governor’s large donors: plastic pipe.

Since 1982, the California Building Industry Association has pushed state authorities to allow use of chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) pipes as an alternative to copper for water running into newly-built homes. Until the other day, the state’s Building Standards Commission refused to go along, concerned by the possibility that potentially toxic chemicals might leach from plastic into drinking water.

That resistance is over. The commission, now made up wholly of Schwarzenegger appointees, has just passed new rules allowing use of plastic pipes so long as they are flushed before installation to get rid of debris or loose chemicals.

What was the impetus for this change? “During the governor’s first run for office, he supported plastic pipe,” noted Dennis Beddard, general counsel of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which produced the environmental impact report needed before the rule could change. “The building industry has wanted this for 25 years. Back in 1982, there was no history. Now we have 25 years and our EIR concluded there is no good reason not to use plastic pipe, especially since the price of copper pipe has risen sharply.”

So the governor’s appointees came up with a report supporting his longstanding opinion. Surprised?

Meanwhile, Rosario Marin, chair of the building code commission and a Schwarzenegger cabinet member, insists the change was part of a sweeping update of codes that had not been changed for 10 years.

Marin asserts that “We did this honorably.”

But there’s more information to consider: Schwarzenegger has taken more than $15.9 million from builders and developers who will benefit from this change made by his appointees. To some, that makes this one smell a little wrong.

But Marin claims that “I wasn’t aware of any donations from the building industry,” then repeats her boss’ mantra about donations buying nothing.

Besides the large campaign contributions, Marin says she also didn’t know her subordinate Lynn L. Jacobs, the director of Housing and Community Development since last April, is an affordable housing developer plucked from the executive committee of the Building Industry Association, which itself has given more than $215,000 to Schwarzenegger.

By using plastic pipe, her once and future colleagues will save exponentially more than they’ve invested in the governor, unless they lower new home prices. Is anyone betting they’d willingly do that?

The bureaucrats working for Schwarzenegger’s appointees insist the new rule was strictly routine. “We’re in a cycle of adapting plumbing codes,” said David Walls, executive director of the building standards commission. He noted that all of America besides California, New York City and Chicago has allowed plastic pipe for years.

But consumer advocates note the initial draft environmental impact report for the code change did not even mention possible danger from leaching of toxics or cancer-causing chemicals. Said Carmen Balber of the Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights, “Arnold shouldn’t be cutting corners and exposing families to unknown risks just to please his biggest industry donor. Just because you don’t have a list of people made ill by this in other states doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Meanwhile, housing department director Jacobs is an example of how Schwarzenegger takes top appointees from industries that back him financially, then lets them make rules favoring their old companies and colleagues.

The same sort of thing occurred when SBC Communications was allowed to buy up AT&T Corp. and adopt its better-known name. A Public Utilities Commission chaired by a onetime utility company chairman made that decision, benefiting companies that had given well over $400,000 to Schwarzenegger.

Similarly, Jackie Pfannenstiel, former vice president for strategy and planning at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., heads the Energy Commission, which rules on many of her former employer’s projects.

Schwarzenegger’s, then, is an administration replete with foxes guarding henhouses. When they make or drive decisions to please the industries from which they came, like the plastic pipe okay, it’s business as usual with hardly anyone even noticing.