Capitol Alert

California lawmakers post mixed record on political reform

In a year marked by scandal in the state Capitol – including two senators indicted on bribery charges and dozens of politicians warned by the state’s campaign finance watchdog for raising money at the home of a prominent lobbyist – California lawmakers pledged to clean up some of their political practices.

By the time their legislative session ended for the year early Saturday morning, the record of change was mixed.

Legislators sent Gov. Jerry Brown a highly-touted package of bills to ban campaign fundraisers at lobbyists’ homes and offices, lower the value of gifts public officials may receive and require politicians to file their campaign finance statements more frequently.

They sent him a wide-reaching political reform bill that, among other things, would require more disclosure of who pays for the trips public officials are often treated to, and prohibit politicians from using their campaign funds for clothing, vacations and other non-campaign purposes.

But that bill, SB 831 by Sen. Jerry Hill, originally set out to do much more. It was watered down as the year went on, removing provisions to cap the value of travel gifts public officials can accept and ban politicians from using campaign money for criminal defense.

Lawmakers also stalled on a measure to require political advertisements to more clearly display their top donors. Supporters pulled Senate Bill 52 Friday afternoon after acknowledging it didn’t have the backing needed to earn passage. Sen. Mark Leno, the bill’s author, said he couldn’t overcome opposition from labor unions.

“They’ve been working this very, very hard in the Assembly, and Assembly members are feeling a squeeze because their constituents want this and labor is telling them, ‘Don’t you dare,’ ” Leno said.

SB 52 would have required the three largest funders of TV and print advertisements, and the two largest donors of radio ads and automated calls, to be clearly labeled, without the ambiguous committee names that are now frequently used. Leno said he looked forward to working with the sponsoring group, California Clean Money Campaign, and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins to advance the policy next year.

Another bill to alter campaign fundraising rules failed in an Assembly committee in June. Senate Bill 1101 would have banned fundraising during the month when lawmakers are deliberating on the state budget and the final month of session when they decide the fate of scores of controversial bills. The Senate enacted a rule this year that severely limits fundraising during the final month of session, but it does not apply to the Assembly and could be dropped in the future if the Senate chooses not to renew it.

“The real challenge I observed is that as much as there was a sense of urgency for the Senate to create change and enact change via rules or anything else, we didn’t feel that same sense of urgency from the Assembly,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles. “The problems that led to this crisis atmosphere were happening with members in one house, not both.”

The Senate took an unprecedented step in March when it suspended three of its members while maintaining their pay. Sens. Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco were indicted on corruption charges in separate federal cases, and Sen. Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills was found guilty of lying about where he lived when he ran for office to represent the Inglewood area.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee