Reformers ponder new limits on legislative fundraising

9:53 PM, Sep 23, 2013   |    comments
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It was a blistering pace for the first 13 days of September -- marathon conversations, early mornings, and late nights as the annualized ritual of late summer in Sacramento reached its crescendo.

No, not the intense debates over policy and bills; rather, the onslaught of political fundraisers.

A review of publicly available announcements of political fundraisers for sitting legislators finds 117 campaign events in the days leading up to the Legislature's final adjournment for 2013.  Add that to the fundraisers held since January (and add in three that have been held since the end of session), and the year's total is 565 fundraisers -- an average of more than 15 a week.

"I know that fundraising is a necessary part of politics," says veteran political watcher Dan Schnur.  "But legislating is a necessary part of politics, too."

Schnur, whose resume stretches from spokesman for former Gov. Pete Wilson to GOP political strategist to chair of the state's political watchdog agency, is the director of the USC Unruh Institute of Politics.

He's now also leading an effort to possibly impose a new, broad ban on legislative fundraising via a 2014 statewide ballot initiative.

The proposal is relatively simple: no campaign cash solicitations and events any time the Legislature is in session, and a fundraising ban for the first 72 hours of any recess period.

Schnur points out it's not a ban on political money, but rather on political activity.

"We're saying to the legislators raise all the money you want: but do the job you were elected to do first before you go out collecting money for your next campaign," he said in an interview.

Whether a 2014 campaign is launched to block fundraising during the legislative session remains an open question.  But some kind of reining in of the dozens of breakfasts, dinners, sporting event parties, wine tours and more now seems to be gaining traction.

Look no further than the leader of the state Senate.

"Very few people I know like it," says Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento of the existing system.  The veteran pol says there's merit to the idea of change, but argues it's only reasonable to ban fundraising in non-election years... not the legislative sessions which end with voters going to the polls.

"There really is very little way around the necessity to raise money in order to successfully compete in politics," he says.

Steinberg says he'd be willing to consider a ballot measure for 2014, crafted by the Legislature, to that effect.  At an event on governance reform in Sacramento on Sept. 20, one former legislator offered private polling numbers showing 83 percent support for a ban on fundraising in the final eight weeks of a legislative session -- the precise time in which so many events are held.

Political insider-turned-academic Dan Schnur concedes it won't stop money from being raised for legislative races -- political parties and others would still be free to do what they wish.  But he argues it's at least a good start, and says it could mean that some interest groups which thrive on those campaign donations on the eve of an important vote... choose not to donate at all.

"The idea isn't to eliminate the bad action," he says.  "It's to make it as difficult as possible."

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.


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