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Lawmakers See Little Chance for Campaign Reform : Government: Even proponents do not hold out much hope for changing financing laws this year. Critics of state Legislature say politicians are afraid of upsetting the status quo.

May 17, 1993|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Like every other Sacramento lawmaker, Ross Johnson has squeezed his share of "juice," the hefty campaign contributions that flow around election time.

Johnson, however, says he's never enjoyed the exercise, nor the bitter taste it leaves with the public. To that end, the Republican assemblyman from Fullerton has been trying for nearly a dozen years to slap a legal lid on the campaign cash. He has authored bills, pushed two statewide ballot measures, buttonholed colleagues--all to no avail.

But Johnson is back at it again this year, joining half a dozen other lawmakers eager to see elections become more fiscally prudent affairs unfettered by the Midas-sized donations of such special interests as doctors, teachers, labor unions and lawyers.

No one is holding his breath.

Even as federal lawmakers debate tough reforms proposed by the Clinton Administration, there appears to be little chance that a similar effort will make much headway this year in Sacramento. Despite the indictment and conviction of several state lawmakers for political corruption and polls showing public distrust of state government, California's deeply divided Legislature still cannot agree how to yank itself from the morass.

Critics contend that the lawmakers are simply reluctant to trash a system that helped get most of them elected.

"They're terrified of change," said Ruth Holton, executive director of California Common Cause, a Sacramento watchdog group. "Legislators are more concerned about getting reelected rather than how the public perceives the institution."

But reformers still have hope.

Some suggest that the Assembly's large class of 27 freshmen, who elbowed into office largely on a promise to overturn the Sacramento status quo, could give reforms a boost. There are nearly a dozen bills for them to choose from, some calling for a simple limit on contributions, others proposing an austere revamping of the campaign finance system.

If it does not happen in the Legislature, change could come courtesy of the judicial branch. The state Supreme Court will take a fresh look later this year at instituting Proposition 68, the broad-based campaign reform law approved in 1988 only to be ruled void because a competing measure got more votes.

Others say new statewide ballot measures are in the offing. Prompted by the fund-raising tactics of Jerry Brown, the former California governor who solicited contributions of $100 or less during his unsuccessful presidential bid last year, a coalition may try to put a measure capping contributions at $100 on the 1994 ballot.

But veterans of the political trench wars do not see reform coming soon. "I don't think there's any chance at all," Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said in an interview last week. The powerful Democratic leader from San Francisco said lawmakers lack the "political will" to see reforms through and tossed aside the idea of a ballot measure as "dumb" and "ludicrous."

Reformers say Brown and other leaders deserve much of the blame for the legislative inertia. Brown, for instance, staunchly opposed Proposition 68 when it was on the ballot, and he joined both parties recently to file legal arguments against the initiative with the Supreme Court.

"There are a lot of crocodile tears shed by legislators over campaign finance reform problems, but when it comes to voting for it, lo and behold, they don't," said Tracy Westen, executive director of the California Commission on Campaign Finance, which studies governmental reform issues.

As is the case with most issues in Sacramento, the debate over juice has been colored by a partisan patina. After a dozen years of talk, neither side can agree on a solution.

Democrats chafe at the idea of simply adopting a $1,000 limit on campaign contributions, a tact favored by Republicans such as Orange County's Johnson. Although the ruling Democrats are more apt to enjoy the fruits of five-figure contributions from sugar-daddy special interest groups, GOP candidates typically can tap a larger pool of $1,000 contributors.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, loathe the idea of spending limits and public financing of campaigns, which Democrats favor. Aside from a distaste for taxpayer dollars being used for political campaigns, Republicans say wealthy candidates can simply ignore spending lids, which courts have ruled must be voluntary.

Amid the partisan tiff, some suggest that something far more troubling is taking place.

Assemblywoman Debra Bowen, a freshman Democrat from Marina del Rey whose own reform bill has been scuttled for the year, contends that the rancor is not partisan at all. Instead, she said, lawmakers from both parties have grown quite content to let their nit-picking kill off any chance for campaign reforms that most do not want anyway.

"The issue isn't one of finding the perfect way to do it," Bowen said. "It's a matter of this: Are we better off having some limits rather than no limits? The answer, I think, is obvious."

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