The state’s campaign finance watchdog voted Thursday to flip its longstanding opinion on contribution limits and allow legislators and other candidates to give unlimited sums of money to help Democratic Sen. Josh Newman fight a recall election.
The move is a potential boost to Newman’s chances as Democrats try to hold a two-thirds supermajority that allows them to raise taxes and put constitutional amendments on the ballot without Republican support.
A lawyer for Senate Democrats first appeared at a California Fair Political Practices Commission meeting in June to ask the agency to reconsider its 15-year-old opinion that state candidates are subject to limits when they contribute money to a politician facing a recall. Before the change, the FPPC interpreted campaign finance law to mean that candidates can’t give Newman, a Fullerton Democrat, more than $4,400 each.
“We applaud the commission for its common-sense, bipartisan and legally-sound interpretation of the Political Reform Act,” said Richard Rios, the Senate Democrats’ lawyer, in a statement.
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Commissioners Brian Hatch, Maria Audero and Allison Hayward supported reversing the agency’s position. Chair Jodi Remke was the only dissenting commissioner in the 3-1 final vote.
“We’ve perpetuated the error since 2002 and I think it’s time we fixed it,” Audero said. “The best I can say to the public is better late than never, but it shouldn’t be never.”
Remke previously cautioned against the decision, saying it could be seen as a political move that damages the agency’s reputation.
At the meeting, she questioned the need for Senate Democrats to request the change. Candidates are currently allowed to contribute as much as they want without limits to other committees set up to support politicians facing a recall. Before the rule change, candidates were only capped when they gave money directly to Newman.
Senate Democrats had pushed the commission to act quickly to change a rule they believe is unfair to Newman.
“As of today, the fact remains that everyone opposed to the recall can give unlimited funds to oppose the recall,” Remke said before voting against the change. “I just think that needs to be taken into consideration when we talk about fairness and emergency action.”
Hatch and Remke are Democrats. Audero and Hayward are Republicans. Attorney General Xavier Becerra has yet to appoint a fifth member to an empty position on the commission.
Last week, The Sacramento Bee revealed that Rios met privately with Hatch before the matter was discussed in a public comment period during the June meeting, according to public records. Hatch and Rios also exchanged text messages and talked on the phone. Hatch, a former lobbyist for the firefighters’ union, acted as a staunch advocate for the change throughout the process and never disclosed his private conversations with Rios during public meetings.
Republicans are attempting to recall Newman over his support for a controversial gas tax increase and to eliminate Democrats’ two-thirds super majority in the state Senate. Newman took the 29th Senate District, a historically Republican seat, by surprise in November.
Senate Democrats have complained that proponents of the recall lied to voters and inaccurately said that signing a petition to oust Newman would reverse the gas tax. The Legislature passed a law, Senate Bill 96, earlier this year to establish a process for voters to remove their signatures from the petitions. The bill also attempted to push the recall election to the June primary ballot to favor Democratic turnout.
Republicans filed a lawsuit and argued the law is unconstitutional. Earlier this week a Court of Appeals judge served a blow to the Newman campaign and halted the law from taking effect until the court weighs in on the case.
At different points in time, both political parties in California have argued that the FPPC was wrong about contribution limits in recall elections.
The FPPC’s position appeared on a fact sheet during the successful recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. The agency reiterated its position five years later in an advice letter to GOP lawyers during an unsuccessful recall campaign against former Republican Sen. Jeff Denham.