Sacramento Bee: Legislature must close corrupting campaign money loophole

By Patricia Bates and Dan Schnur
Monday, April 18, 2016

Published by the Sacramento Bee on Monday, April 18, 2016

February’s sentencing of former state Sen. Leland Yee in a political corruption case closed a dark chapter in the history of the Legislature, and also presents an opportunity to close the legal loopholes that may allow such behavior again.

The case exposed a glaring flaw in our campaign finance laws – how easy it is for special interest groups and politicians to skirt limits through candidate-controlled ballot measure committees. It is imperative that we change the law instead of just carrying on business as usual.

That is the goal of Senate Bill 1467, which goes Tuesday before the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee. Given our experience in politics, we know the need for reasonable reforms in this area.

When an undercover FBI agent asked Yee how he could get around California’s campaign finance limits, he told him to simply give the money to a ballot measure committee that would run ads showing him in a positive light. This loophole allows politicians to receive unlimited contributions into accounts they control. The money can then be used for purposes that are indistinguishable from those funded by donations that are otherwise limited.

This recent example was extreme. But the opportunity for abuse still exists, and we should address it instead of hoping that no one will repeat this behavior.

When Californians overwhelmingly approved the Political Reform Act of 1974, they sought to ensure that public officials “serve the needs and respond to the wishes of all citizens equally” and “perform their duties in an impartial manner.” By passing Proposition 34 in 2000, voters overwhelmingly expressed a desire to limit the influence of special interests on California’s elections.

The ballot measure committee loophole, however, flies directly in the face of that objective by allowing special interests to fund thinly veiled campaign advertisements without worrying about contribution limits.

SB 1467 would protect the voters’ will and the spirit of the Political Reform Act by increasing safeguards against the undue influence of money in politics. While the original bill would have put candidate-controlled ballot committees under the same contribution limits that cover candidates for state offices, it was amended to improve its chances of winning bipartisan support.

The revised bill would still be an improvement. It would bar candidates and elected officials from using money from candidate-controlled committees to promote themselves, their candidacies or the campaigns of others. This is a sensible solution to ensure that elections are contested on a level playing field and that special interests cannot buy even more influence.

The Legislature must start closing this loophole and restore power to California’s citizens.