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California and the West

Panel Kills Bid to Ease Rule on Campaign Finance Disclosure

Capitol: State Senate committee guts attempt to update '74 Political Reform Act, rejecting increase in reporting threshold.

July 02, 1998|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A proposal to allow politicians more leeway in collecting and spending money without publicly disclosing it was rejected Wednesday by a state Senate committee.

Included in the defeat was a plan to increase the maximum amount a lobbyist can spend to wine and dine public officials. The legislation had sought an increase from the current $10 a month allowed to be expended per official to $50 every quarter.

After removing the most controversial parts of the bill, the Senate Elections Committee left intact only a few technical provisions. Its action dealt a setback to Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae) and James Hall, chairman of the watchdog Fair Political Practices Commission, who wanted to update the voter-approved Political Reform Act of 1974.

Papan, who left the hearing before the committee gutted his bill (AB 1864), later said he still intends to pursue the issue this summer in a proposed Senate-Assembly conference committee.

Clearly, the Elections Committee, reflecting apparent election-year jitters over tinkering with the Watergate-era political reform law, was in no mood to quickly enact the changes, most of which could be characterized as moderate.

"We shouldn't rush it," said Chairwoman Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), before her committee acted.

She said a more thorough study is needed before the Legislature raises the reporting thresholds that track who gives, receives and spends the millions of dollars in state and local campaigns.

Generally, the bill would have doubled the minimum dollar levels that politicians and officeholders must reach before the sums have to be disclosed.

Political reform activists who testified against the measure said they support reasonable updating of the law, including adjusting some threshold reporting levels. But they said such adjustments should be accompanied by increasing the current maximum $2,000 fine that the FPPC can levy.

Jim Knox, executive director of California Common Cause, opposed doubling from $1,000 to $2,000 the threshold for reporting contributions made in the critical final days of political campaigns.

"By their nature, late contributions often are designed to fly under the radar so the public doesn't know who is making these expenditures," Knox said. Doubling the reporting level would put the information even farther away from voters, he said.

The landmark political reform law, enacted as Proposition 9, was intended to put a public spotlight on political campaign financing. As a result, candidates, officeholders and other public officials are required to file timely public reports on their collection and expenditure of political funds.

To prevent conflicts of interest, the law also requires officials to annually report outside sources of income, including interest in real estate, businesses and other investments. It also prohibits officials from participating in official actions in which they have a financial stake.

But Papan and Hall testified that threshold levels are unreasonably low and have been virtually unchanged for 24 years despite inflation.

They said, for example, that the bookkeeping burden of organizing a political committee--which has a contribution-reporting threshold of $1,000--discourages Californians from seeking office. Some candidates must hire expensive attorneys and accountants merely to make sure they stay within the law in this organizational process, they said.

Boosting the level to $2,000, for example, would remove what Papan called an "element of fear." He and Hall said increasing the thresholds would aid low-budget campaigns for local office and would not affect statewide or legislative candidates, some of whom spend millions.

As for increasing from $10 to $50 the maximum amount a lobbyist can spend wining and dining legislators, the committee was clearly bothered by how the public would accept such a change, even though lawmakers and lobbyists have long complained that the limit is too low.

Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange) said relaxing the meal allowance might play badly in the "public perception" and might become a pivotal campaign issue in close legislative elections.

Hastily abandoning the increase, Papan told Lewis, "I'm willing to leave it at $10." But that wasn't enough to keep the legislation from being derailed.

Papan's bill is an outgrowth of a recent report by the state auditor, which investigated the FPPC. The report concluded that, although the political watchdog agency was doing a reasonably good job, its enforcement activities and customer service needed improvement.

The report also suggested raising the threshold levels to keep pace with inflation.

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