When it was reported last week that state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, was taking a group of lobbyists to Las Vegas for a fundraising event, most veteran Capitol observers rolled their eyes. So what? And the fact that the trip was scheduled right before a key vote that would benefit the casino hosting the fundraiser? No big deal. Just one more politician selling access to deep-pocketed special interests right before a vote on a bill of tremendous financial interest to them.
It was business as usual in Sacramento. Nothing illegal, nothing unusual, no overt quid pro quo. Just one more layer of sleaze in a state Capitol already waist deep in it.
But give Lara credit. Just when it looked like the latest example of political opportunism was going to disappear into the ever-growing pile of similarly squalid Capitol behavior, Lara did the right thing. He actually canceled the event, saying that he did so "to ensure there's no perception of any conflict."
Focus on the word "perception." Lara, like his colleagues and staff, made it clear that there was nothing illegal about the proximity of the fundraiser and the vote. But Lara realized that the appearance of impropriety was sufficient cause to reschedule the event, so he pulled the plug.
Jaded politicos will appropriately point out that Lara didn't cancel the fundraiser until the story was reported in the news media. But he would have faced no penalty for staying the course, going to Vegas and raking in the campaign cash. These types of "coincidences" are a fact of life in state government, reported on almost a weekly basis and then disappearing without a trace. There's no reason to suggest that this particular juxtaposition would have caused Lara any more problems than his colleagues face under identical circumstances. Whether it was because of political pressure or a rare example of self-awareness and ethics in the Capitol, Lara deserves recognition for doing the right thing.
But the fact that one rogue legislator made an honorable decision distracts from the larger problem, one that not only allows but encourages our elected representatives to devote huge amounts of time to raising money for their next election campaign instead of doing the jobs that they were elected to do.
Under the current rules, enterprising legislators can schedule a fundraising reception within a five-minute walk from the floor of the state Assembly or Senate, rush out to scoop up a stack of campaign contributions, and be back at their desks before the ink on the checks has dried. That has to stop.
The answer is an absolute ban on fundraising at any time the Legislature is in session. The ban, which would apply to legislators and statewide officeholders, would extend 72 hours past the end of every session in order to prevent either chamber from gaveling themselves in or out for a few hours or over a long weekend. Both the Senate and Assembly would be required to conclude their respective sessions before any fundraising would be permitted.
Fundraising is a necessary part of politics. Legislating is a necessary part of governing. But you shouldn't be able to do both at the same time. First things first.
Defenders of the status quo will correctly argue that time limitations will not eliminate the need for campaign fundraising or reduce the cost of political campaigning in a state of this size. But a ban during session will ensure that our representatives concentrate on the jobs they were elected to do during the time that those jobs demand the most time and attention.
By increasing the amount of time that passes between a government action and a campaign contribution, the appearance of corruption would be dramatically reduced. The reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would weigh less heavily in the minds of all concerned. And inarguably, the amount of time that a legislator or statewide officeholder would have to devote to his or her official responsibilities would increase dramatically if he or she no longer had to set aside large blocks of time every day for fundraising calls, receptions and other legalized shakedowns.
I have seen many things in my years in politics. But I have never seen a voter tell his elected representative that he wishes that a legislator would spend more time raising money. The answer is not just to request that the other 119 members of the California Legislature follow Ricardo Lara's example, and hope for the best. The answer is to take Lara's principled decision and enshrine it into law.
Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. More information on the proposal can be found at www.fixingca.com.