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Viewpoints: Gov. Brown blows a big opportunity on ethics

My, how times have changed.

Forty years ago, Jerry Brown won his first race for governor by championing campaign reform and focusing the attention of big money on politics. He laid the groundwork for his gubernatorial campaign by using the secretary of state’s office – his first statewide elected office – to push for tougher reporting of campaign contributions and expenditures.

After campaigning for the landmark 1974 Political Reform Act, he used his first inaugural address to call on members of the Legislature and others in public office to help him “regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve.”

Now he’s older, if not necessarily wiser, and no longer running for anything other than an apparent easy re-election against an underfunded and weak Republican candidate. No more presidential races in his future. So, for whatever reason, he seems to have undergone a transformation.

With the state Senate mired in one scandal after another and immense voter disgust with politics – as evidenced by the low turnout in the June primary – Brown this week passed up an opportunity to flash his reformer credentials one more time.

With the weakest of excuses, he vetoed several political ethics bills that might have helped restore at least a semblance of integrity to an institution – the Legislature – that is badly in need of an ethical facelift.

A bill by Sen. Kevin De León, D-Los Angeles, would have drastically cut the value of gifts that state lawmakers and others could receive and barred them from continuing to accept greens fees at golf courses and free tickets to sporting events, concerts and Disneyland.

Said Brown: “Proper disclosure, as already provided by the law, should be sufficient to guard against undue influence.” He said the bill would be “adding further complexity without commensurate benefit.”

Heaven forbid that a well-compensated legislator should have to pay his or her own way into Disneyland.

Another bill, by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would have barred elected officials from contributing campaign funds to nonprofit groups owned or operated by family members, or to pay for the officials’ mortgage, rent, utility bills, clothing, club memberships, vacations, tuition, vehicles and gifts to family members. It also would have required nonprofits that pay for trips for legislators to disclose the sources of their money and the destination of travel.

In his veto message, Brown said that those activities “are already subject to extensive regulation” and that the bill would “add more complexity to the regulations governing elected officials, without reducing undue influence.”

There’s that word “complexity” again, which seems to be a Brown favorite.

But it’s a little hard to understand what could be so complex about shedding a little more light on how members of the Senate and Assembly conduct their business – and pleasure.

Finally, Brown rejected a bill by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, that would have required the state to develop a new, publicly accessible Internet campaign reporting system and require that candidates use it to electronically file their campaign finances every quarter, instead of semiannually.

Not long ago, the state Fair Political Practices Commission was in the process of developing such a system but suspended it after its chief advocate and then-chairwoman, Ann Ravel, left to take a job with the Federal Election Commission in Washington. Her FPPC job stayed vacant for six months, thanks to Brown’s procrastination. The goal of the Lara bill, said the governor, “was laudable,” but the technology was not in place to make adjustments to the reporting schedule.

All in all, not a good day in the Capitol for the reform-minded, and especially surprising coming from a career politician who at one time in his career was so big on restoring public confidence in a system run amok.

“This was an opportunity missed,” said outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

All we can add is amen to that.