Jerry Brown urged to probe GOP vote-trading

First the state budget was under negotiation, then in litigation, and now in unending confrontation, all the while subject to bloviation and obfuscation. Next up: Prosecution?

Labor and environmental groups have asked California Attorney General Jerry Brown to investigate whether Republican state lawmakers are engaging in illegal vote trading during budget talks.

“It’s a serious question and we’re reviewing the matter carefully,” Brown responded in a statement issued through a spokesperson.

The California Labor Federation, the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Sierra Club California and the Planning and Conservation League wrote a letter to Brown on Wednesday – and sent a copy to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, too – citing reports that the Legislature’s GOP leaders are withholding their votes on a state budget while attempting to win votes on unrelated matters.

“Specifically, they have demanded that legislators vote for proposals to weaken labor and environmental standards as a condition for any ‘aye’ vote from Republican caucus members on the overall budget,” the letter says.

It claims such horse-trading violates California Penal Code Section 86, which prohibits lawmakers from giving or promising to give “any official vote in consideration that another Member of the Legislature shall give this vote either upon the same or another question.” Violations are punishable by two, three or four years in prison.

“The budget negotiations, both as reported privately and publicly, clearly violate this anti-bribery statute,” the letter says. “Vote trading is illegal under any circumstance. Vote trading during this deep fiscal crisis is unconscionable. Political gamesmanship threatens the livelihood of millions of California taxpayers, workers, and vendors.”

See the Republican responses and more context, after the jump…

Jennifer Gibbons, spokeswoman for Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, R-Clovis, called the accusations “completely unfounded and false. This is nothing more than an intimidation tactic and it is an unfortunate distraction for lawmakers who are working hard to reach a budget compromise.”

And Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for State Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, said it’s not vote-trading when the issues under discussion all relate back to the budget, as these labor and environmental issues do. “For months, Republicans have been pushing economic stimulus ideas to create and protect jobs in our state. Getting more Californians to work has a direct connection to the budget – more jobs, means more paychecks feeding much-needed tax dollars into the state’s coffers.”

Brown has expressed interest in running for governor in 2010; he finished 2008 with more than $4.1 million in his campaign war chest, ahead of all other known Democratic contenders.

The Oakland-based California Labor Federation, made up of more than 1,200 unions representing more than 2.1 million members, also Wednesday announced Assemblyman Danny Gilmore, R-Hanford – 2008’s only Republican to win a legislative seat previously held by a Democrat – is the first target of a mail campaign targeting voters in key Republican districts, highlighting the GOP budget stance and its impact on ordinary Californians.

UPDATE @ 4:17 P.M. THURSDAY: Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, said he applauds the labor and environmental groups for bringing this to the fore.

“It’s about time somebody raised that question, I think it’s a legitimate question for the Attorney General to look into,” he said.

Democrats are trying to grapple with the state’s cash crisis and protect vital services, and suddenly “these issues come from left field that have to do with labor policy that’s been on the books for quite some time, and issues that they (Republicans) bring up every year and try to roll back,” Swanson said. They’re obviously trying to leverage their power under the state’s requirement that all budget and tax bills receive two-thirds votes in each legislative chamber, he said, but making quid pro quo trades might very well run afoul of the law.

UPDATE @ 5:29 P.M. THURSDAY: Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is on board with it too.

“This is like ‘Shrimpgate’ all over again,” she said, referring to the 1980s Sacramento corruption sting operation in which FBI agents posing as out-of-state businessmen sought to buy their way into legislation to create a shrimp processing plant; 14 Democratic and Republican lawmakers, lobbyists and others went to prison in that scandal.

“Here we are in a serious budget deficit – cash crisis, state offices closing, people getting IOUs – and those people are willing to hold us hostage basically to take away the eight hour day and your lunch break, which has nothing to do with the budget,” Skinner said.

Though not a lawyer and previously unfamiliar with P.C. 86, “it certainly feels highly unethical to be holding a whole budget up so that you can throw in these demands that, number one, would never survive the light of day, and second, have nothing to do with the budget,” she said. “They don’t generate revenue nor do they save money, they do nothing to deal with this immediate cash crisis.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.