LARGESSE: Gifts to legislatorsÂ’ spouses donÂ’t count. So life and health insurance companies could buy $682 in meals for the wife of Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), at a conference they both attended. (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

A massage for a lawmaker's wife. Circus tickets for his kids. Keys to a mountain cabin for the weekend. A donation to his favorite charity or one that flies him across the world on an "educational" trip.

There are many ways to get a politician's attention. Plenty of corporations, unions and others with a stake in state government do it the time-honored way: They write checks to campaign accounts or wine and dine lawmakers. But voters have restricted how much can be spent on such things.
Political money: An article in Section A on Dec. 29, about ways in which special interest money is used, misidentified a nonprofit group that took state political leaders on a study tour to South America in November 2006. The group that sponsored the trip was the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, not the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance. The article also said Chevron and its subsidiaries donated $343,000 to the council in 2006; in fact, that sum was given during 2005 and 2006. Chevron also donated to the foundation last year, but the company and foundation officials —who are not required by law to disclose the donations -- declined to specify how much.

These days, interest groups and wealthy individuals hoping to generate goodwill in the Capitol are doing more creative things, too. They still wine and dine, but they have found loopholes through which they also dispense money for a lawmaker's favorite cause, bestow lifestyle perks such as luxurious travel -- even provide them with outside income.

"Water flows into the cracks," said UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. "People have had to become more ingenious."

This year's limit on gifts to legislators, for example, is $390. But gifts to their spouses don't count. So in September, life and health insurance companies could buy $682 in meals for Maggie Cox, wife of Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks), at a Pebble Beach conference they both attended.

Under California law, gifts must be disclosed in public filings with the secretary of state.

Nevertheless, largesse from special interests trying to create familiarity and goodwill in the Capitol is a "pernicious influence," said Robert C. Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego Law School.

Fellmeth has worked for 30 years on legislation to benefit children and consumers without giving state campaign contributions or gifts and has to work "very, very hard" to get an appointment with a lawmaker, he said.

Generosity from interest groups and individuals, he said, can foster in some decision-makers "a desire not to disappoint that extends to every possible future bill."

"It's not like a direct bribe," Fellmeth said. "It's worse. In a direct bribe, you get a quid and give a quo. And maybe it's over. But with what we have in Sacramento, there's no definition to the transaction, there's no limitation to the transaction."

Brad Wegner, president of the Assn. of California Life & Health Insurance Companies, host of an annual Pebble Beach conference with legislators, said his group seeks "interaction between policymakers and our members," and no favor is sought.

"What we get out of it," said Wegner, "is an exchange of information and the time to share views."

Dave Cox said the Pebble Beach event does not leave him better disposed toward the insurance companies, noting that he has voted against bills the association supported. No one has special access to him or his staff, he said: "We meet with anyone who wants to meet with us about any subject."

But Fellmeth said California needs a tighter lid on political money so that special interests cannot buy access to lawmakers. Ideally, legislators would be treated like judges and be barred from discussing legislation with interested parties outside of public hearings, he said. They should also be banned, he added, from taking anything of value from those parties.

"We've really got to have a wall of integrity," he said, "where legislators take nothing from anybody they affect as officials."

Here are some of the ways special interests curry favor:

Be charitable