Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown vetoes California political ethics bills

Rejecting major parts of an ethics package in a year tainted by scandal, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday vetoed legislation that would have required more campaign finance disclosure and reduced the value of gifts lobbyists can give state officials.

In a message accompanying one of three ethics-related vetoes, Brown criticized legislation he said would needlessly make existing regulations more complex.

“Proper disclosure, as already provided by law, should be sufficient to guard against undue influence,” he wrote.

Senate Bill 1443, by Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, would have reduced to $200 from $440 the value of gifts an official can receive from a single source each year. It also would have prohibited officeholders from accepting free tickets to concerts, sporting events and theme parks.

The bill would also have prohibited lawmakers from accepting golf green fees, skiing or hunting trips or spa treatments, and it would have barred officials or candidates for state office from accepting cash or gift cards.

In vetoing the bill, Brown said that although politicians should be subject to constraint, “some balance and common sense is required.”

The Democratic governor then referred readers of his veto message to an article written by one of his former law professors, who he said “makes this very point with insight and clarity.”

Brown’s vetoes came as he concluded action on more than 1,000 bills sent to him by the Legislature this year. According to the Governor’s Office, Brown vetoed just more than 13 percent of the bills, a slightly higher proportion than in 2012 or 2013 but lower than in the first year of his third term.

The ethics bills, if not explicitly related to recent lapses in the Senate, came to Brown amid intense public scrutiny of the upper house. The Senate in March suspended three of its members in separate criminal cases. Two Democratic senators were indicted on corruption charges, and a third was found guilty of lying about where he lived. The ethics bills lawmakers passed allowed them to take credit for tightening the rules, but the veto means they won’t have to live by them.

“We’re disappointed,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. “This is the year when two state senators were indicted for political corruption ... and clearly both Assembly members and senators were trying to address some of the factors that led to those problems.”

She said Brown’s vetoes were surprising “just in terms of restoring public confidence and creating the optics that our state government cares about ethics and takes it seriously.”

Brown took took a skeptical view of the legislation, questioning the benefit of increased regulations and objecting to making current law more complex.

In addition to de León’s bill, Brown vetoed legislation that would have required more frequent campaign disclosures and a measure that would have required interest groups that pay for politicians to go on trips to disclose donors who fund the travel.

Senate Bill 1442, by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, would have required campaign committees to file finance reports four times a year, doubling the current requirement of twice a year.

Brown, who campaigned for the state’s Political Reform Act when he ran for governor the first time, in 1974, said in vetoing the Lara bill that it is premature to adjust the state’s campaign reporting schedule before technology projects elections officials are currently undertaking are finished.

In addition to requiring disclosure of donors paying for free trips, Senate Bill 831 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, would have prohibited politicians from using campaign funds for clothing, vacations and other non-campaign purposes.

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

Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance and ethics expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said much of the legislation made “great talking points on the campaign trail” but was so minor that, even if enacted, it would not “change the way business is done in Sacramento.”

“There was this reaction like, everybody needs an ethics bill,” she said.

One bill Brown signed was Senate Bill 1441, a measure by Lara to ban fundraisers at lobbyists’ homes. The signature, which Brown offered without comment, came after a prominent lobbyist was fined for coordinating improper gifts and events at his house, including one Brown attended.

It was the vetoes that generated attention at the Capitol on Tuesday, however.

“Year after year, the same concerns are raised about the same political practices currently permitted by state law, which these vetoed bills sought to address,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a prepared statement. “This was an opportunity missed.”

Jodi Remke, whom Brown appointed as chairwoman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, issued her own carefully worded statement.

“The Governor’s decisions today highlight the need to focus on common sense solutions that further the Act’s goals without adding complexity,” she wrote. “We agree there is a need to proceed cautiously when tinkering with the Act and to emphasize smart disclosure that truly helps inform voters.”

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