Gaming the system

Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, collected just over $100,000 from gaming interests in the 2005-06 election cycle, representing more than a fifth of his total. This session, he’s authored seven gaming-related bills.

Unusual? Hardly. Florez is chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. The GO committees generally oversee gaming and other “sin” legislation in the Legislature. For years, campaign contributions have followed.
His counterpart in Assembly GO, Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, pulled in $68,100 in gaming money over the same period. He only took over Assembly GO this session.
In the case of both men, an increase in gaming money corresponded to moving up in the GO. In the 2003-04 cycle, Torrico pulled in a mere $16,000 in gaming money. Florez brought in $22,400. In the 2001-02 cycle, he got only $6,500.

Florez took over the Senate GO in December 2004. He went on to become of one of the most important gaming players in the Legislature last session, again authoring seven bills. This included legislation to allow tribal nations to carry tax-exempt bonds (SB 995, failed) and two bills sympathetic to the horse-racing industry (SB 1229, SB 1805, both passed).
“I have a great deal of policy interest and expertise in the issue area of gaming, and therefore carry gaming-related bills,” Florez said. “It’s not uncommon for a committee chairman to carry bills that address an issue area that the committee reviews.

“I think it is natural for contributors to support the candidacy of members with a strong understanding of the issues those supporters care about,” he added.
Probably the most controversial was his SB 1198, a bill to loosen betting limits on card rooms. It was widely seen as an attempt to help a card room in his district, Lucky Chances, and hurt a nearby competitor, Artichoke Joe’s. Artichoke Joe’s gave Florez $2,000 in 2005; Lucky Chances gave him $6,000.
“Gaming interests have clearly decided that Florez is a friend, and it’s not hard to see why,” said Ned Wigglesworth, a spokesman for California Common Cause. “The more you support an interest with legislation, the more likely they are to give you money.”

Wigglesworth went on to note that the Florez didn’t just support gaming legislation, he’s authored an unusual amount. While Torrico has authored less gaming legislation, he’s still covered a lot of ground between different areas of gaming. He said he wants to push “model” compacts now, and also set the state up to better help people with gambling addictions.

“What’s my grand vision?” Torrico said. “To balance the interests. You can take a puritanical view, or you can take the view that people want to gamble.”
Prior to Florez, the big money Senate GO chairman was current Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, who pulled in $93,500 in 1999 and 2000. Almost $57,000 of this came from horse-racing interests. He carried six gaming bills, four of them related to horse racing. Three of these horse-racing bills had support from elements of the industry; the one that didn’t ended up with then-Senator John Burton’s name on it instead of Perata’s.

Torrico’s predecessor, former Assemblyman Jerome Horton, pulled in $50,750 from gaming interests in 2005-06 and carried four pieces of gaming legislation. In 2003-04, the figure was $53,000 and three bills; in 2001-02, $64,500 and five bills.

While gaming interests have more often preferred Democrats, ranking Republican GO members have also gotten bumps of gaming money. And the committee is a key fundraising perch. Senator Jeff Denham, R-Merced, was made GO vice chairman, at the beginning of 2005 and also holds one of the GOP’s most vulnerable Senate seats. Last cycle, he pulled in $56,350 in gaming money as part of a huge $2.3 million haul that helped him coast to re-election. The previous cycle he got less than $20,000 in gaming money.

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