SACRAMENTO — State lawmakers caught the national reform wave Thursday and launched their own bill to curb the unlimited flow of cash into California election campaigns.
Political reform activists, such as Jim Knox of Common Cause, immediately pounced on the bill as a "sneak attack . . . dead-of-night deal" to weaken a stronger law currently tied up in court.
And attorney and political activist Tony Miller called it "an effort to end-run Proposition 208, which 61.3% of the voters approved."
That proposition sharply limited individual contributions to candidates. It was approved in 1996, but it has been paralyzed by legal challenges that are scheduled to go to trial July 11.
The measure approved Thursday in a quick hearing of an Assembly-Senate conference committee sets far higher contribution limits. It will be subject to voter approval on Nov. 7.
The bill, SB 1223, also would reward candidates who voluntarily restrict their spending and would offer no taxpayer subsidies of campaigns.
It had not been scrutinized by any policy committees before going to the conference committee in amended form, where it was swiftly approved by the bipartisan panel and sent to the floor of each house for expected final passage next week.
Members of the six-member conference committee, including Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks), praised the package as a solid, if not comprehensive, reform move.
"This is about as good as it gets," Hertzberg said. Veteran Republican state Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine agreed, calling the measure the "best hope" for restricting the ever-escalating political arms race in California.
The lawmakers' plan limits individual contributions to $3,000 per election for legislative candidates, $5,000 for statewide candidates and $20,000 for governor. The limits would take effect next year.
For the governor and other statewide officers, the limits would not be instituted until 2003.
That would enable gubernatorial candidates, presumably including Gov. Gray Davis, an Olympic-class fund-raiser, to collect as much cash as they could for their 2002 election or reelection campaigns.
"That's a sweetener for Gov. Davis to sign the bill," Miller said.
The legislation was first examined by the committee Wednesday but then sent out for the printing of 28 pages of amendments, which became public at 1:55 a.m. Thursday.
Eight hours later, the committee tackled the heavily amended bill in a 15-minute session as lawmakers prepared to adjourn for a five-day weekend. Contrary to long-standing tradition, the committee did not give supporters or opponents a chance to testify, and instead approved the bill 5 to 1.
Immediately, the settlement came under fire from political activists, both for the details in the bill and for the lack of public debate. The critics charged that the committee did not want to give them a forum to attack weaknesses in the bill.
"The whole effort here is to circumvent Proposition 208, because there is a real feeling in this building that 208 is going to be reinstated by the courts," Miller said.
Proposition 208 sharply limited individual contributions to $250 per election for legislative candidates and to $500 per election for statewide candidates, including governor.
Miller noted that the legislative proposal would supersede provisions of Proposition 208, if the court should uphold all or parts of the challenged initiative. The court case is expected to take up to two years to be resolved.
Burton, chairman of the conference committee, insisted that witnesses could have interrupted before the vote and asked to be heard. Such action usually is not tolerated, however.
"We passed a good bill. If they don't like it, that's their right," Burton said.
Hertzberg said that if he were chairman, he "might do something differently, but that was not my decision. Sen. Burton ran it as he chose."