Highlighting Democratic losses, Republicans block California campaign finance bill

Published: Monday, Mar. 17, 2014 - 11:11 pm

Republicans on Monday blocked a California campaign finance reform bill that fell one vote short, demonstrating the limits of a diminished Democratic caucus.

Senate Bill 27, by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, sought to lift the veil on outside campaign spending by compelling nonprofits to identify their donors if contributions hit certain benchmarks, such as when a nonprofit spends more than $50,000 in a given election cycle.

The bill’s basic premise of requiring broader disclosure of campaign donations was sound, said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, but he objected to the timeline. The bill carried an urgency clause that would allow it to take effect in July, before the upcoming election.

“We will be subjecting people to a different process,” Huff said. “They will not have had time to understand the rules of engagement changed.”

Bills amending the Political Reform Act require a two-thirds vote, making them closely watched tests of Democratic dominance. Legal troubles have ensnared two Democratic senators, Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills and Ron Calderon of Montebello, and dropped Senate Democrats below their two-thirds margin.

Last year, when Wright and Calderon still sat in the Senate chambers, Correa’s measure advanced beyond the Senate without a single Republican vote. During debate on the Assembly floor in February, Republicans decried a bill they said would muffle dissenting voices and unfairly alter the rules in the middle of an election cycle.

By the time it got back to the Senate to sign off on Assembly amendments on Monday, Wright and Calderon were gone and the GOP was able to block it. Democrats mustered all 26 of their votes, but four Republicans voted no. The other seven GOP members did not vote.

Lawmakers and the California Fair Political Practices Commission have sought to crack down on undisclosed campaign donations since outside groups used an elaborate network of nonprofits to funnel millions into the 2012 election.

Under the current rules, a nonprofit’s initial campaign expenditure – its “first bite of the apple” – does not trigger disclosure requirements. Subsequent spending would require a group to detail its donors, but advocates of tighter rules say outside groups can currently channel a single large, anonymous sum into an election.

Along with other Democrats, Correa said the legislation would apply giving requirements uniformly by depriving would-be secret donors of a place to hide.

“This bill is about equity. This bill is about transparency,” Correa said. “This bill does not limit what you spend, but rather says let the world know, let the voters know in a timely basis the source of those expenditures.”

Correa rebuffed Republican arguments against the bill by arguing on the Senate floor that donors would have plenty of time to adjust to new guidelines, which would only apply to expenditures made after July 1.

But Huff called that description imprecise, saying the bill would not necessarily shield donors who gave before the July 1 implementation. If the nonprofit made sufficiently large political expenditures after the bill took effect, the identity of donors who gave before July 1 could in some cases be revealed.

“We want to protect the privacy rights of current individuals who may not know that their donations are going to be used for politics, thereby subjecting them to disclosure and loss of privacy,” Huff said in a statement, adding that Democratic backers of the bill “misrepresented the facts.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White

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