Why not a corporate giving law like Texas?

Prosecutors in the Texas state capital of Austin circled all winter around that state’s most powerful congressman, Republican Tom DeLay, the House majority leader who is often reputed to be the real national guiding force of his party.

Several close DeLay associates have already been indicted for bringing corporate money into state politics, and some prosecutors believe that would be impossible without DeLay’s say-so.

Wait a minute. Corporate money in state politics illegal? When Jesse Unruh, the legendary 1960s Democratic speaker of the California Assembly declared that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” wasn’t he talking about corporate cash? OK, union money, too.

In fact, corporate dollars are the driving force behind much of this state’s politics. When energy companies want approval for liquefied natural gas plants, they contribute to the governor, regardless of who it is. When developers want to defeat proposed laws restricting where they can build, they contribute, too, regardless of the recipients’ parties. And so on.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger staged fund-raisers for an initiative committee he claims not to control this spring in New York and Washington, seats went for $11,000 at one and $22,300 at another, with invitations announcing that $89,200 would buy a “private briefing” with the governor.

That money can’t influence him, Schwarzenegger claims, all the while adopting policies corresponding nicely to what his donors want.

While no one will be certain exactly who paid the big money until the next reporting date this summer, does anyone think even highly-paid corporate executives in attendance at the Arnold dinners actually put out that kind of personal cash? No, this money almost always comes from corporate coffers. In New York, much of it came from Wall Street brokerage firms with plenty to gain if public employee pensions are converted into 401-k-style accounts that would reside with them.

Imagine how different California politics would look if this state had a Texas-style law banning political use of corporate money for anything but administrative expenses like office rent and telephone bills. For one thing, campaigns for and against ballot initiatives would not use nearly as much television advertising. They’d be forced to rely on old-fashioned pamphlets or slate cards where voters might actually read something about an issue, even if it would often be misleading.

But that would be unfair, say the current beneficiaries of corporate largesse. Labor unions would still have carte blanche. OK, a new law could restrict both corporate and labor union money.

Schwarzenegger and others already are trying to restrict union political contributions, claiming that because they use money from compulsory dues to fund causes, they in effect force some unwilling members to support measures and candidates they don’t like.

But corporations do the same. By using corporate funds, they in effect force some unwilling stockholders to support things they may not like. Not to mention customers who pay more for goods and services because corporations are trying to buy political influence.

So ban both corporate and union money.

But that would just spawn a spate of independent expenditure committees spending money on their own for the same candidates and causes, argues Alan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican campaign consultant now working as a television analyst.

“You cannot drive private money out of politics,” Hoffenblum says. “Government can ruin a business or wreck a person’s life, so people will always find some other way to use money to get involved.”

OK, so ban corporate and union contributions to official candidate and ballot proposition committees and force the same interests to disclose their spending in large letters in all their independent ads.

That would go even farther than the Texas law. It would also go far to clean up what’s seriously wrong with California politics.

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at