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Panel to Pick Political Reform Targets

Finances: The state agency must choose which educational or enforcement programs go to meet a 20% cut.

September 06, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The watchdog agency that administers California's political reform law began the painful process Thursday of backing away from some of its most important functions to meet a 20% budget cut ordered by Gov. Gray Davis.

A relatively small agency with the enormous mission of keeping politics clean, the Fair Political Practices Commission operates on a budget of about $6.5 million. But it must reduce spending by $1.3 million as state government heads into a series of projected multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls.

Davis, who signed the state's new budget Thursday, directed virtually every state agency last month to cut spending 20% to get a head start on dealing with next year's gap.

But as the political reform commission started charting its spending cuts, members found themselves facing anguishing choices.

For example: Should enforcement of anti-corruption laws be restricted to the worst violators at the state level or should the commission eliminate popular educational services that advise candidates on how to obey the complex law and stay out of trouble?

Gordana Swanson, a former Republican mayor of Rolling Hills, said she favored both a robust education program and vigorous enforcement. "If we don't have a strong enforcement procedure, we might as well close these doors," Swanson said.

Another proposal would shift the enforcement of financial disclosure requirements by local public officials from the state commission to local regulators. In some cases, though, such a change could weaken enforcement because the local regulators would be appointees of the elected officials suspected of wrongdoings, such as mayors and city council members.

"Anything you do less of, you leave a hole," warned attorney Mike Martello of the League of California Cities.

In deciding which violations should be the commission's highest priorities under spending constraints, Chairwoman Karen Getman told colleagues, "Instead of going after every single late filing, let's go after the more egregious cases."

The commission delayed any cuts until next month, because no figures were available on how much money various proposals would save. But commissioners noted that budget reductions could result in the erosion of efforts to combat political corruption.

"Let's not kid ourselves that we can do what we do now with 20% less resources," Getman said.

The state's 1975 political reform law was created by voters after the Watergate controversy as the first of its kind in the nation.

In addition to enforcing requirements for avoiding conflicts of interest by state and local officials, the commission monitors campaign spending and prosecutes violators who fail to file timely spending reports. Violators can be severely fined.

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