Ethics Reform

By Jessica Calefati
Posted: 07/05/2014 04:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 07/06/2014 06:47:14 AM PDT

SACRAMENTO — After state Sen. Leland Yee’s stunning arrest earlier this year, the Legislature’s highest-ranking member urged his colleagues to finally fix a long-standing problem in California politics — the corrupting allure of money.

“Sometimes it takes a crisis,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said after denouncing the San Francisco Democrat’s alleged ties to international gunrunning during a speech on the Senate floor.

Since voting to suspend Yee and two other California senators indicted in recent months, Sacramento lawmakers have held a “day of reflection” and considered more than a dozen new pieces of ethics reform legislation. But while support for bills requiring more disclosure of gifts and contributions remains strong, interest in tougher proposals that would restrict politicians’ fundraising and access to lavish free trips around the globe has waned significantly in the last three months.

“You can’t be against an ethics bill the day after the scandal, but it’s no longer the day after the scandal,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in campaign finance law.

Proposals that seek to ban fundraisers at lobbyists’ homes, double the amount of campaign finance reporting required annually and limit the value of gifts lawmakers can receive from outside groups passed nearly unanimously.

These are worthy pursuits, Levinson said, but they’re clearly not the kind of systemic changes Steinberg was talking about several months ago when he lamented the distrust sown by the “legal, acceptable and necessary” truth that money can corrupt.

“We’re nibbling around the edges, grabbing the low-hanging fruit,” Levinson said.

In February, Sen. Alex Padilla introduced a bill that would create fundraising “blackout” periods when lawmakers running for re-election are barred from accepting campaign contributions. Under the proposal, fundraising while negotiating the budget and during the last several weeks of the legislative session would be forbidden.

Lawmakers have tried to impose such blackout periods three other times over the past decade, but none of the attempts were successful in passing legislation in effect in 15 states.

With three colleagues — Yee and Sens. Ronald Calderon, D-Montebello, and Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood — possibly facing prison time (Wright has already been convicted of voter fraud), Padilla said he hoped this year the timing would be right. Instead, his bill is on life support.

“Every legislator I’ve talked to swears up and down that their political activities are separate from how we make policy and how we cast our votes,” Padilla said. “We can all say that until we’re blue in the face. But if public perception is otherwise, that’s not good for democracy.”

Senate Bill 1101 survived a vote in the Senate only after Padilla agreed to an amendment sought by Senate Republicans that also imposes fundraising restrictions on non-incumbent candidates for the Legislature. Otherwise, those challengers would have an unfair fundraising advantage, the lawmakers argued.

Now Padilla is hearing new complaints from Democrats who sit on the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee. A majority of the panel’s members declined to cast votes on the bill when they reviewed the proposal last month, leaving it without enough support to advance.

“It’s been a grind,” said Padilla, a candidate for secretary of state in November’s election.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, said the proposed legislation “simply had too many inconsistencies and unresolved issues” to win his support in committee. He noted that the ban wouldn’t apply to non-legislator candidates seeking local or statewide office. That’s unfair to sitting lawmakers running for those offices, he said.

Asked why the bill couldn’t be amended to address that concern, Padilla said court decisions in other states indicate that it would invite legal challenges.

Last month, the Senate adopted a new rule that imposes a fundraising ban on its members for the last four weeks of the legislative session, but there are no legal penalties for officials who break the rules. Senators who accept checks during the blackout period can only be reprimanded by their colleagues.

So far, the Assembly has declined to adopt a similar rule.

Padilla isn’t the only lawmaker to have an ethics reform bill picked apart this year.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, saw key elements of a wide-ranging proposal to strengthen California’s landmark Political Reform Act deleted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, who will replace the termed-out Steinberg as the Senate’s leader.

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