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Ross Johnson, the regretful lawmaker

Now the top campaign watchdog, he apologizes for his role in undercutting limits on special interests' political contributions.

November 03, 2009

Ross Johnson represented Orange County in the Legislature for 26 years, and one of the chief accomplishments of his tenure was to get voters to roll back strict campaign contribution limits. His vehicle was a ballot measure that pretended to promise tough limits but actually loosened them. Now, from his vantage point as chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission -- the state's campaign watchdog -- things look different to Johnson. And he has a message for Californians: He's sorry.

"I would like to apologize to California voters for supporting Proposition 34 and urging them to do the same when it was on the ballot in November 2000," Johnson told The Times. "Proposition 34 has allowed far too many ways for officeholders, candidates and special-interest contributors to legally circumvent its contribution limits."

Now he tells us. Johnson deserves credit for owning up to his mistake, but it's a little late. The commission reported earlier this year that officeholders and candidates have raised more than $1 billion since voters adopted his measure. That's, on average, $14,354 every hour.

"I believe the mad scramble for special-interest dollars creates a sense of futility on the part of average citizens and raises profound concerns for the future of representative democracy," Johnson said.

If only he had seen things the same way after voters passed strict campaign laws in 1996. Proposition 208 would have limited contributors to $250 per legislative candidate and $1,000 per statewide candidate. The idea was to require candidates to raise funds broadly rather than be beholden to a small coterie of interests. A federal judge suspended the measure, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in another case gave backers hope that they would win on appeal.

Frightened lawmakers, led by Johnson, quickly crafted Proposition 34, and unwary voters adopted it in the probable belief that they were, again, curbing special-interest influence. But the actual limits were absurdly high: $3,000 per donor for legislative candidate, $20,000 per gubernatorial candidate. Both numbers are now higher because of continual cost-of-living increases built into the original law. Those have continued even as lawmakers and the governor recently denied similar cost-of-living increases to programs for seniors, the poor and the infirm.

Now Johnson is telling Californians that they deserve reform that will work. That's true, and more power to him if he believes he can find the right formula and meet the even more daunting challenge: getting lawmakers in his own Sacramento haunts, or voters disaffected in part by gambits such as Proposition 34, to sign on.

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