SACRAMENTO — Amid a term-limits battle at the Capitol, the top national advocacy group for term limits awarded state Senate leader Don Perata a "Golden Pig" Tuesday for using more than $1 million in campaign funds on "lavish" hotels, restaurants, parties, travel and gifts.

U.S. Term Limits announced it had created the jab for California politicians who "remind us of the necessity for term limits."

Perata, an Oakland Democrat, declined to say much in response to the award, sometimes discounting the group with questions of his own, such as, "(U.S.) Term Limits? Who's that?"

Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, said U.S. Term Limits "is a well-funded, out-of-state organization that vilifies anyone and any group that regard term limits as flawed or even suggestchanges in existing term-limit laws."

Virginia-based U.S. Term Limits and its supporters are battling legislators and others who want to change California's controversial term limits for state Assembly and Senate members.

The current voter-approved law restricts politicians to three, two-year terms in the Assembly and two, four-year terms in the Senate.

Advocates for change claim term limits have backfired, doing little to block the power of special interests, while turning the Legislature into an inexperienced, revolving door. Efforts include a proposed ballot initiative, backed by strategists for dominate Democratic lawmakers and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Democrats are bickering among themselves over whether revamping of term limits should be combined with reform of political redistricting.

Supporters of strict term limits, meanwhile, insist they help thwart the agendas of moneyed stakeholders and improve government.

The Perata political-campaign spending cited by U.S. Term Limits — much of it not unprecedented in the Legislature — occurred over a number of years. Current law allows campaign funds to be spent for a wide range of uses and includes many gray areas.

U.S. Term Limits pointed, in particular, to expenditures of $119,517 on restaurants and $68,503 on hotels, as reported May 23 by the East Bay Express, an Emeryville-based weekly newspaper.

"There is no greater poster politician for term limits than the ethically challenged Don Perata," Jeremy Johnson, a spokesman for U.S. Term Limits, said in a statement. "His greedy pursuit of perks makes Perata the Legislature's ultimate perk addict."

The group also attacked Perata's motivation for supporting term-limit change.

"Don Perata is scheduled to be termed out of the Senate next year," Johnson said. "No wonder he is so desperate that he's working with fellow political boss (Los Angeles Democratic Assembly Speaker) Fabian Nunez to keep his power longer."

At the same time, analysts questioned U.S. Term Limits' motives.

"Its political agenda is clear from the fact it targets Sen. Perata and passes over many California legislators, Republican and Democratic, who have also called for rational changes in our term limit law," Hodson said.

Contact Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com or (916) 447-9302.