Editorial: Lawmakers must end fundraising during sessions

Published: Monday, Apr. 1, 2013 - 12:36 am | Page 13A

Former Fair Political Practices Commission Chairman Dan Schnur wanted to start a "conversation" about Sacramento fundraising.

He certainly succeeded. As The Bee's Torey Van Oot reported last week, Schnur is proposing to ban fundraising by state officeholders while the Legislature is in session. "Fundraising is a legitimate political activity. Legislating is a legitimate political activity. But you can't do both of those things at the same time," Schnur told Van Oot.

In essence, the Legislature would need to go out of session for at least 72 hours before legislators and other elected state officials could raise funds. He said he wants legislators to adopt the idea. Failing that – and they almost certainly would not agree to it – Schnur is contemplating trying to raise money for an initiative in 2014.

Capitol insiders were quick to level criticism at Schnur's concept. First, he hasn't put the idea in the form of a bill, so details are sketchy. Fair enough.

Another pitfall is that restrictions on fundraising by incumbents could boost the chances of wealthy challengers. That's always an issue. But as "Gov." Meg Whitman can attest, money doesn't always win.

A third critique – and one that is troubling – is that the restriction would further crimp the power of politicians to control their own campaign messages, and add to the already considerable power of independent expenditure committees that operate separately from candidates. Given a long line of cases by the courts defining spending money as a First Amendment right, independent expenditure committees, with their unlimited fundraising and spending, are here to stay.

We might prefer some other solutions to a fundraising blackout period, chief among them immediate disclosure done year-round and extended to so-called social welfare organizations.

The FPPC also ought to have enhanced enforcement authority. Law enforcement and district attorneys, particularly here in Sacramento County, should take it upon themselves to be more aggressive in their pursuit of fundraising abuses.

Political fundraising will remain a reality, so long as voters remain skeptical of public financing. But Schnur, a former Republican operative who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, raises an issue worthy of debate.

As any lobbyist can attest, fundraising has become ever more brazen. It's no coincidence that some committee chairs schedule their fundraisers at around the time their committees meet to decide important bills. It's certainly no accident that legislators become particularly aggressive during the closing days as they are casting votes on interests' legislation.

Legislators should show self-restraint by adopting a policy by which they don't raise money in the final month of a legislative session. Barring that, they could soon face a more far-reaching initiative, one that might seriously cramp their style.

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