Cash flows to committee taking up optometry bill

Cash flows to committee taking up optometry bill

When doctors expressed concerns about legislation to expand the scope of practice for pharmacists, the state’s medical professionals all agreed on a compromise. Only pharmacists that received additional training would be given the expanded authority to directly administer certain contraceptives, vaccines and smoking-cessation treatments.

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“Collaboration is part of the pharmacy bill,” Dr. Paul Phinney, president of the California Medical Association, told the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee on Tuesday.

With the medical association’s opposition removed, Senate Bill 493, one of three scope of practice bills authored by state Senator Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, sailed through the assembly committee on a unanimous vote. SB 493 is up for a vote tomorrow in the full Assembly.

The pharmacists reached a political compromise that didn’t compromise patient safety.

Optometrists

Don’t expect the state’s optometrists, another profession looking to expand its scope of practice this legislative session, to follow suit.

That’s because over the years a political action committee controlled by the California Optometric Association has plied members of a key committee with tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. More than a third of those contributions have occurred in the past five months. Ten of the 14 members of the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee have accepted campaign contributions from the optometry association.

The association did not respond to CalWatchdog.com’s email for a comment about its political contributions.

“Giving campaign contributions close in time to a vote helps to ensure that legislators remember those contributors fondly,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law school professor who specializes in campaign finance issues. “Campaign contributions can be intended as a down payment on goodwill.”

Since 2009, the California Optometric Association PAC, or Cal-OPAC, has contributed $37,200 worth of goodwill to members of the committee that will now consider whether to dramatically expand the scope of practice for the state’s 9,000 optometrists.

“It’s not a conflict as much as it is a blatant case of using political contributions to influence legislators,” said Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for California Common Cause, which closely monitors campaign finances.

Gordon has accepted $10k from Optometric PAC

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, the B&P committee member that has received the most optometry funds, has accepted $10,400 throughout his legislative career, including a $3,000 contribution in March.  Gordon’s office did not respond to CalWatchdog.com’s email for a comment about his position on the scope of practice bill.

Gordon’s five-figure campaign haul is followed by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who has accepted $9,800 in contributions to her political campaigns. Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, has accepted $4,000 during the past three years.

Uptick: Reason for public to feel uneasy

Gordon, Skinner and Dickinson account for the overwhelming majority of optometrists’ contributions to the committee. That hasn’t stopped the association from forming new friendships with committee members.

This March, Cal-OPAC made first-time contributions to Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, and Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita. Each received a $2,000 check on the same day. In May, the association added Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, to the $2k club. In total, the optometry PAC has contributed $13,000 to members of the business and professions committee in the past five months.

Those recent contributions, according to Levinson, are likely to further undermine the public’s faith in the legislative process.

“An uptick in campaign contributions by interested groups before an important vote can make the public feel uneasy about the pervasive influence of money in politics.” Levinson said.

Ung agreed, but said the practice is nothing new in Sacramento. “You can always depend on special interests to give right before important votes,” he said. “We see this every year without fail.” 

Contributions: Cost of doing business

Those contributions are likely to be remembered this Tuesday when the committee considers legislation strongly supported by the optometrists. Senate Bill 492 would give your local eye doctor the power “to perform vaccinations and surgical and non-surgical primary care procedures.” Such an expansion would increase the number of patient visits to optometrists, thus delivering a financial windfall to optometry-related businesses. On its website, the California Optometric Association lists SB 492 as a “Priority 1” bill.

“Many campaign contributions are likely seen as the cost of doing business,” said Levinson. “It makes business sense for those who have a proposal pending before the legislature to give campaign contributions to those in charge of making decisions affecting with pending proposals.”

Contributions don’t violate state law

For all of the criticism, campaign finance watchdogs don’t believe that the contributions violate state law.

“These activities are totally legal as long as bribery or extortion are not explicit,” said Ung.

Levinson added, “If there were a conflict of interest each time a group that has business pending before the legislature ramps up targeted campaign contributions to committee members in charge of decisions affecting that group, then many campaign contributions would present a conflict of interest.”

The California Optometric Association’s flurry of campaign activity isn’t the first controversy surrounding the scope of practice bill package. In June, CalWatchdog.com first reported that Hernandez, the bill’s author who also works as an optometrist, has accepted more than $140,000 in campaign contributions from optometry-related businesses.

Assembly Democrats Susan Bonilla of Concord, Susan Talamantes Eggman of Stockton, and Kevin Mullin of South San Francisco, along with Republican Assemblyman Brian Maienschein of San Diego, have not accepted any contributions from the California Optometric Association.

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