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Commentary

Mayor's Race Exposed Prop. 34's Flaws

July 12, 2001|KAREN GETMAN | Karen Getman is chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission

Everyone can agree that there was inadequate reporting of campaign expenditures in Los Angeles' recent mayoral election, and that our disclosure laws need fixing. We at the state Fair Political Practices Commission also don't doubt the good intentions of local officials who insist that Los Angeles voters should have had more information before--not after--the mayoral balloting.

But rather than trying to handle the situation with a local ordinance, L.A. should be joining forces with the commission in its effort to gain passage of a state law that would toughen reporting requirements to prevent the type of disclosure "gaps" that plagued the L.A. mayor's race.

The current controversy over campaign funding stems from provisions of Proposition 34, the measure passed by more than 60% of voters statewide in November. Proposition 34 imposes contribution limits on state candidates and increases penalties for violations of state law.

But the proposition, in its own words, also strengthens "the role of political parties in financing political campaigns" by giving the parties greater flexibility in fund-raising and spending. While this may be a good thing, the proposition's promise that the public would know in a "timely" manner about how this money was used did not happen in the Los Angeles election.

Relying on a relatively obscure provision of the measure, the parties spent vast sums on "membership communications" in the L.A. mayoral primary that did not have to be reported to state officials until weeks after the election.

After the mayoral election, the Los Angeles City Council, at the request of the city's Ethics Commission, passed an emergency ordinance requiring political parties to file new membership communication reports.

The Democratic and Republican parties complied under protest, but both have threatened to sue, contending that state law trumps local law in the regulation of statewide political committees.

After a hearing on the matter, the FPPC decided that state law preempts the local ordinance. We did so not because we are "anti-disclosure" or a "tool for the major political parties," as some have alleged, but because this is a matter of statewide concern. Solving the problem in Los Angeles will do nothing to help voters in other cities.

State law recognizes that Los Angeles and other cities must be allowed to enact campaign finance laws tailored to the unique aspects of their local elections. But there are shortcomings in this system. For example, committees that are active on a statewide basis, such as those concerned with environmental issues or taxpayer rights, could be asked to file reports with dozens of local agencies with vastly different criteria.

This complex overlay of state and local laws causes problems not just for the committees but also for the FPPC's efforts to enforce and interpret the state law. In 1985, the commission supported legislation that put statewide political committees under our jurisdiction. Committees also must file additional preelection reports when they become active in local elections.

For 16 years, the state law worked to give voters timely and accurate information on last-minute campaign spending by the political parties.

Senate Bill 34, which passed 37-0 in the state Senate and is nearing a final vote in the Assembly, would reenact the same reporting requirements that worked so well for so long.This bill, which is supported by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, should solve the problems with unreported party expenditures in Los Angeles and prevent similar problems from occurring in other California cities.

Both the FPPC and the city Ethics Commission believe fervently in the power of campaign finance disclosure. We are working together to pave the way for a system of statewide electronic disclosure that will increase the accessibility of information in all state and local elections.

The current dispute should be quickly resolved so we can continue to focus our collective efforts on positive reforms.

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