11:04 PM PDT on Sunday, May 30, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside County faces a $131.5 million budget shortfall, and supervisors are seeking deep cuts — and as many as 1,600 layoffs — to bridge the gap over the next two years.

But as they seek those reductions, the county’s three largest employee unions have made more than $450,000 in campaign donations to supervisors, candidates for the board and other elected officials who wield influence in county politics, campaign finance figures released late last week show.

The recent data covered fundraising through May 22, and the amount from the unions is likely to increase before the June 8 election. But it already is more than double what the three organizations contributed two years ago and six times the 2006 spending level.

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“The unions have every incentive to maximize their political power to minimize the impact of budget cuts,” Claremont McKenna government professor Jack Pitney said. “If I were head of a public-employee union, my first priority would be to minimize the damage to my members.”

The Riverside Sheriff’s Association, which represents more than 3,000 people, including 2,500 deputies, has made $225,000 in direct campaign donations to Gary Jeandron and his campaign for the 4th District seat on the Board of Supervisors.

The union has provided another $114,000 in non-monetary support to Jeandron’s campaign, paying for polls, telephone banking, mailers and literature.

The deputies’ organization also has contributed another $101,250 to Sheriff Stan Sniff and his bid for a full four-year term.

The Riverside Sheriff’s Association donations so far in the 2010 election cycle are triple what the union spent in 2008 and nine times its donations in 2006, campaign finance records show.

Union president Pat McNamera did not return a message Friday seeking comment.

The Laborers International Union of North America represents 6,800 Riverside County employees. The union more than doubled its spending from four years ago, contributing more than $80,000 to county campaigns.

Supervisor Marion Ashley, who is running unopposed, and Sniff were the two largest recipients, records show. The union did not return a call seeking comment.

The Service Employees International Union represents more than 5,800 county employees. For the first time in at least a decade, the union has started contributing directly to county candidates.

SEIU Local 721 gave $18,500 to county candidates through May 22, when the most recent data were available. The two largest donations went to Supervisors John Tavaglione and John Benoit.

Wendy Thomas, an SEIU regional vice president, said the union once was fragmented into smaller chapters. Now, the union is coming into its own, she said.

“It is important for us to have the strongest, best, most efficient leaders,” Thomas said.

The county’s fiscal crisis certainly is a top concern for union members, as it is for all employees, she said.

“Our biggest point is to make sure the services are provided,” Thomas said. “We have a vested interest. We live where we work.”

The union has officially endorsed Supervisors Ashley, Tavaglione and Benoit, along with Sniff and Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco.

Supervisors say the union donations will not affect how they vote to bridge the county’s budget gap over the next two years.

Tavaglione received $5,000 from SEIU.

“If you go back over my reports, they were the only ones that had not, historically, supported me,” he said in a recent interview.

He said about a year ago when state budget cuts and the economy began to take a toll on the county’s finances, he reached out to SEIU officials.

“Historically, this board … had never had a relationship with SEIU,” Tavaglione said.

Now, the union is proposing ways to save county money and SEIU officials sit on a committee tasked with developing pension reforms.

The county has $4.5 billion in pension liabilities with $800 million that remains unfunded.

Some unions have been resistant to changes in the retirement system.

Tavaglione said the campaign donations will not change how he votes on county finances and pension reform. He said he tells all union representatives there are simply areas where they will disagree.

“We just have to get beyond that,” he said.

Benoit, who faces Jeandron for the 4th District seat, insists supervisors must separate their official actions from campaign donations.

Elected officials have a responsibility not to base judgments on financial support, Benoit said in a recent telephone interview.

The sheriff’s association has backed a measure that qualified for the November ballot that, if approved by voters, would lock in public-safety pensions at their current levels.

Benoit said the pension issue is why the union opposes him. Benoit, a former California Highway Patrol officer, said he opposed increased benefits when serving in the Legislature.

“The reason the RSA is so opposed to me is I stood up in the Legislature and said no,” Benoit said.

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