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Big donors to campaigns buy an ear.

Byline: DAVID STEVES The Register-Guard

SALEM - When Oregon's newly elected governor and Legislature arrive at the Capitol next year, they won't be the only winners from this month's election.

They'll be joined by interest groups that, having backed the winning candidates, are sure to have receptive audiences for their ideas.

"Large donors expend money to get influence. They expect to get their interests protected," said former south Eugene legislator Larry Perry, president of the campaign-finance watchdog Common Cause Oregon. "Few are giving out of the sense of civic duty."

Groups such as organized labor and the alcoholic beverage and prescription drug industries are among those in a good position to get heard.

Labor unions were big contributors to Democratic Gov.-elect Ted Kulongoski's win - both in cash donations of close to $400,000 and grass-roots organizing to secure strong voter turnout from their members.

And alcohol and pharmaceutical manufacturers were among the myriad business and industry groups that helped Republicans expand their majority in the House from 32 to 35 of the chamber's 60 seats. The two industries each gave about $30,000 to the main House Republican campaign and to the GOP candidates who won eight of the 11 toss-up seats.

The two industries also backed the Republicans' losing effort to keep control of the Senate - but the modest amount of money they sprinkled into the campaign funds of Democratic candidates will ensure they won't get shut out with that caucus, either.

Organized labor has wasted little time in shifting focus from the 2002 election to the 2003 legislative session. After his victory, Kulongoski told a rally of union supporters: "We could not win without you," and he has already met with AFL-CIO Oregon President Tim Nesbitt to talk about labor's agenda.

Nesbitt said he and Kulongoski went over some of labor's key items for next year: health-care reform and the economy.

The specifics included:

Pushing a payroll tax of 1.5 percent to expand health insurance to children in lower-income households struggling to pay for rising dependent-care insurance premiums.

Bulk-purchasing prescription drugs at lower rates for public employers and eventually private employers.

Extending unemployment benefits for long-term jobless people.

Economic development strategies to create well-paying jobs in Oregon.

Nesbitt said union members realize the state's tough economic times will make it difficult to talk about expanding programs and instead will force consideration of cutting programs, contracting services to private firms and other budget proposals that labor opposes because of potential public-sector job losses.

But union gains in the election have his members upbeat about their chances to have their agenda taken seriously. Not only did labor-backed candidates do well in the state Senate and governor's races, Nesbitt said, but labor interests passed initiatives raising the minimum wage and banning per-signature payments for initiative circulators - the latter making it harder for conservatives to use the initiative system to promote anti-union and limited-government causes as they have in recent years.

"We were able to focus on passing measures rather than defeating them, and in the next session of the Legislature, we hope to be able to continue along those lines," he said.

Janice Thompson, executive director of the Portland-based Money in Politics Research Action Project, said looking at which donors put their money behind the winning candidates provides some insight into who the big winners will be among lobby groups next year.

Her incomplete analysis of 2002 contributions suggests that the alcohol and prescription drug industries should gain an ear.

For the pharmaceutical companies, she said, that means a receptive audience for their arguments against the formulary-type program they tried to defeat last session. The program assesses drugs for their effectiveness so doctors can determine whether a low-cost prescription will work just as well as a more expensive one.

The alcohol lobby's success, Thompson said, will most likely mean legislators will think extra hard before deciding if they want to consider higher beer or wine taxes or increased price markups at state-controlled liquor stores.

Paul Romain, a lobbyist for beer and wine distributors, said he's pleased that his contributions helped in the success of candidates backed by his clients. That included House Republicans, several Democrats who won key Senate races and Kulongoski in the governor's race.

But the veteran lobbyist said he's preparing for the next session with no illusions that campaign contributions will ensure the sort of regulatory and tax policies that beer and wine distributors are seeking.

"We're still going to have to make our case," Romain said. "What we don't want is to be shut out from being able to make our case."

Troy Nichols, who coordinated fund-raising and campaign strategy for the House Republican races, said elected officials typically pay attention to the concerns of interest groups that supported them. But during the campaigns, donors never pitched their agendas when they were being asked to make contributions.

"We tell them about the quality of our candidates. They don't tell us what they want. That's not the way it works," said Nichols, who will be a top aide in the House next year.

Senate Democratic Leader Kate Brown of Portland said the groups that helped get her candidates elected are being consulted as the Legislature starts preparing for next session.

But just because labor unions, environmentalists and trial lawyers came through as top donors as they traditionally do for Democrats doesn't mean other groups that backed primarily Republicans will get left behind, she said.

In part, that's because businesses and trade groups also backed Democrats, although not as generously as Republicans.

Brown said it's also because the session's likely focus on job creation and economic development is likely to prove a uniting issue for groups that represent businesses and workers.

She noted that auto dealers heavily backed one of the Republican Senate candidates, Bob Tiernan, in his suburban Portland area race with Democrat Richard Devlin, who came out the winner.

"We're not going to go to the auto dealers, 'Hey, we're not going to talk to you,' ' she said. "Are there legislators who hold it over (lobbyists') heads because candidates didn't get money? My guess is there are. But it's not my style. I don't think that's an appropriate way to do business in the state of Oregon."
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Title Annotation:Politics: Groups give big bucks to ensure their interests get heard.; Politics
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Nov 17, 2002
Words:1041
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