Lawmakers seek changes in campaign finance reporting;

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Open-government groups oppose the efforts, saying that the bills would allow special interests to overwhelm elections.

Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, CA — California lawmakers are proposing a trio of bills they say would update the state’s campaign finance laws and better recognize free speech rights, but several open-government groups are fighting the measures, fearing they would allow special interests to overwhelm elections.

Opponents say the bills would decrease public reporting of charitable contributions given at the behest of politicians and create a loophole in the regulation of funds spent by political parties, unions and other groups communicating with their members in support of candidates.

“Politicians are whittling away at the laws meant to deny special interests a stranglehold on California politics,” said Carmen Balber, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “But the details of campaign laws are as important as their core; shave off the edges and the whole campaign finance structure crumbles.”

The bill that has received the most attention is AB 1430, which generally would prohibit local governments from adopting campaign finance ordinances that restrict communications between an organization and its members.

It is backed by the California Republican Party, California Democratic Party, California Labor Federation and National Rifle Assn.

“I value free speech and the ability for membership organizations to communicate with their members,” said Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-Solano Beach), the bill’s author.

Garrick said his bill would clarify existing law enacted by voters in 2000 in Proposition 34 and preempt local regulation of member communications.

The bill has drawn opposition from the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, San Diego Ethics Commission, California Clean Money Campaign, League of Women Voters of California and California Common Cause.

Opponents are pointing to the 2001 mayoral election in Los Angeles as the reason the bill should be rejected.

When Antonio Villaraigosa unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2001, a number of rich contributors, including billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, first gave up to the $1,000 city limit directly to Villaraigosa, then wrote checks for $100,000 each to the state Democratic Party, which waged its own mail and phone campaign urging Democrats to support Villaraigosa.

For five years, Los Angeles has required political parties, unions and others to disclose within 24 hours of spending $1,000 or more on member political communications, such as a letter from a union to its members urging it to vote for a candidate.

If more than $10,000 is spent, they must report the source of those contributions.

As a result, the Los Angeles commission has received reports of $1.7 million spent on member communications for city elections since the 2001 general election, with 59% coming from labor and 40% from political parties.

The city Ethics Commission asked Villaraigosa and the City Council to go on record opposing the bill, but the mayor and council have not weighed in.

Los Angeles limits contributions in citywide races to $1,000 per person or entity.

LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the Los Angeles panel, said she believed that because L.A. is a charter law city, it can keep the regulations — something disputed by supporters of the bill.

But Pelham said the bill could restrict the ability of the majority of California cities to regulate such spending. “We think it threatens to limit the voters’ ability statewide to know about money spent to influence their elections,” Pelham said.

Another bill sparking heated debate is SB 298 by Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto).

It would increase the contribution amount that triggers reporting requirements for large campaign donors. Currently, major donors must file additional disclosures when they spend $10,000. The bill would raise the threshold to $25,000.

“SB 298 would save the Fair Political Practices Commission time and money by reducing the number of less-sophisticated donors who inadvertently violate the major donor reporting requirements,” Cogdill said.

He said the current threshold of $10,000 has not been increased since it was established in 1984.

Others say it would be a setback for transparent elections.

“The change would limit the information available to voters, making elections, and election funding, more opaque,” Balber said.

The foundation is also targeting SB 381 by Sen. Ron Calderon, (D-Montebello), which would reduce the disclosure of contributions made by supporters to charities and other nonprofit groups at the behest of politicians.

Millions of dollars are donated each year, allowing the contributors to gain favor with the politician who asked them to give the money, Balber said.

The bill would increase the amount of time for an elected officer to report a payment made at the behest of that officer for legislative, governmental or charitable purposes and increase the threshold at which such payments must be reported, from $5,000 to $7,000.

Calderon argued that inflation dictates an increase in the threshold, and he said current rules may discourage helping charities

“The current reporting requirements have had the unforeseen effect of making officeholders extremely reluctant to participate in events that benefit the people they represent,” he said.

He said the measure attempts to clarify that officeholders who put out a news release or tape a public service announcement urging people to donate money to a disaster relief fund would not be covered by the requirement.

SB 381 passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee last month.

Balber said that it would deprive the public of information on one of the ways in which special interests seek to influence politicians.

Special interests are limited in what they can donate to an elected official’s campaign but may get in that official’s good graces by also giving a large sum to the official’s favorite nonprofit organization, she said.

“Politicians are out to finish the job they started when they used Prop. 34 to overturn stronger campaign reforms already approved by the voters,” Balber said.
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