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Real campaign reform

October 28, 2005

ONCE THEY WIN ELECTED OFFICE, politicians pretty much lose interest in campaign-finance reform. That's part of the reason such laws are often badly written and listlessly enforced, as recent Times stories have illustrated. And that's part of the reason California needs public financing of elections.

The Fair Political Practices Commission, California's campaign watchdog, recently dropped 225 campaign investigations, some years old, because it lacked the resources to complete them. The FPPC has recently hired new investigators who will try to stay more current. But its problems run deeper.

Although the FPPC is responsible for investigating campaign violations, its authority is fractured. The secretary of state, not the FPPC, collects and releases information on campaign contributions, and the state Franchise Tax Board, an independent agency, conducts all routine audits of campaign finance. Audits are not conducted until well after each election and, unbelievably in this computer age, are delivered to the FPPC as paper files.

This division of labor is sorely inefficient, especially compared to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, which briskly oversees city elections. The commission ultimately reports to the City Council but is otherwise its own master.

The increasing murkiness of state political contributions, reported Sunday by Times staff writer Dan Morain, comes from the exploitation of loopholes. The identities of donors may be reported months after the donations -- and sometimes even after the election. Contributions can be shuffled from one campaign committee to another. And nonprofit groups often need not report their donors at all.

Public funding of political candidates would diminish overall campaign spending as well as candidates' dependence on special interests. Other sources of funding, such as political action committees, should be subject to instant online reporting and thorough donor disclosure. Every political campaign should be audited. And a single powerful agency should serve as the campaign watchdog.

Public campaign finance systems in Arizona and Maine have been successful. In California, such a system would lift the yoke of incessant money-grubbing from campaigns and could ease the way for further reform. It would be an investment with a big return.

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