Interest groups have handed out no less than $42.37 million in campaign donations in the final weeks of the legislative session, as lawmakers decide the fate of hundreds of bills.
Coincidence? Not hardly.
The link between donations and legislative action is clearest at the end of a session. Politicians and the moneyed interests that enable them cannot help themselves. It will take an initiative to fix the problem, although Proposition 32, the bogus campaign finance overhaul on the Nov. 6 ballot, isn't the answer.
The bulk of the money that has flowed this month, almost $37 million, has gone to ballot measures. But Gov. Jerry Brown and other politicians are so closely tied to some of those measures that many initiative donations also are made with a purpose, to curry favor.
In more than 40 fundraisers, incumbent legislators collected no less than $2.2 million in donations of $1,000 or more during the first 28 days of August, campaign finance reports filed on the secretary of state's website show.
All candidates, including incumbents and those seeking election for the first time, raised a combined $5.7 million in August in four-figure donations.
Candidates seeking office don't have a vote yet, but donors can curry favor with current legislators by giving to favored candidates. Ian Calderon, for one, is running for a seat held by his termed-out father, Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier.
Young Ian raised $49,500 from Sacramento interest groups in August, including $2,000 from companies involved in the payday lending industry. His father is carrying a bill at the industry's behest to raise the cap on loans to $500 from the current $300.
There are many similar examples. The American Chemistry Council is trying to kill legislation that would ban polystyrene containers in California. Although the trade group donates at other times of the year, it gave $4,500 to four incumbents in recent days. By the session's close on Friday, each will have to vote on the polystyrene bill.
The Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association's political action committee, which represents mobile home parks, gave $70,700 in August, after donating an average of $30,000 in each of the first six months of the year. Though most of its legislative work is done, the organization still had a few measures pending, albeit minor ones, according to its executive director, Sheila Dey.
"There are campaigns coming up and this is when they need money," Dey said.
Without a doubt, voters disgusted with the political system will be tempted to embrace Proposition 32. A cynical initiative gussied up to look like tough campaign finance reform, Proposition 32 is the latest effort by union foes to limit labor's ability to raise and spend money on California campaigns.
Unions are heavily involved in end-of-session contributions, accounting for $10.7 million of the $42.37 million donated this month, including $1.5 million to incumbents and candidates.
Proposition 32 claims to target corporations and unions. But it takes special aim at organized labor by attacking its method for raising money using automatic payroll deductions to draw money from union members to wage campaigns.
In their attempt to seem balanced, Proposition 32's proponents claim the measure would restrict corporate donations. It wouldn't, not in any real sense. Of the $42.37 million raised for campaigns this month, Proposition 32 might might curb $1.14 million.
The measure does nothing to limit donations to ballot measures. The U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago held that interest groups can spend unlimited sums on propositions.
Nor does the measure limit corporate donations to independent campaign committees. The high court deemed those to be legal in the Citizens United decision in 2010.
Trade associations, political action committees established by corporations, some limited liability companies, partnerships and Indian tribes that own casinos could continue to donate to candidates.
Irvine Corp., one of the state's largest property owners and one of the state's largest campaign donors, calls itself a limited liability corporation, and presumably could continue to donate unabated. Tribes donated $256,000 in August.
Proposition 32 isn't the answer. But there are solutions. Dan Schnur, the former Republican operative and Fair Political Practices Commission chairman who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, is exploring a ballot measure that would impose a blackout period during which legislators and candidates could not raise money.
"The most important thing we can do is to weaken the link between government action and fundraising," he told me.
Money is like water, or, in politics, perhaps slime. It will ooze into the system's cracks no matter what laws are imposed. Clever politicians and their funders will find ways to evade restrictions. But something needs to be done.