California’s political ethics agency approved new rules Thursday designed to help stamp out illegal coordination between candidates and increasingly active outside spending groups.
The regulation effectively shifts the burden of proof in cases of suspected coordination from the government to the candidate or outside spending committee. It puts them on notice if former aides or immediate family members go to work for an outside spending group involved in a candidate’s race, for instance, or a candidate raises money for an outside group. It also would restrict the sharing of candidate-produced video and data.
Fair Political Practices Commission Chairwoman Jodi Remke said Thursday’s regulation responds to the growth in outside spending groups since voters approved candidate contribution limits in 2000. Though contributions directly to candidates are limited, the independent expenditure committees are allowed to raise as much as they want – as long as there is no coordination between them and the candidates who benefit.
$80 million Amount independent committees spent in 2014 races
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In the last election cycle, about 160 such groups spent more than $80 million in 60 statewide and legislative races. In some contests last fall, outside groups dwarfed candidates’ own spending.
“When you have so much money pouring into these elections through these (independent expenditures), you’re going to start seeing different behavior,” Remke said. “Our goal is that contribution limits here have a purpose and are significant.”
California’s era of independent committees spending in state races began nearly a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision unleashed a flood of unlimited outside “Super PAC” money into federal races across much of the country.
The 2016 presidential campaign has highlighted the role of outside committees, and the increasingly fuzzy lines of separation between candidates’ campaigns and those of allied groups. In some cases, candidates raise money for Super PACs, which are staffed by former aides, and have all but assumed responsibility for some candidate campaign functions.
Paul Ryan, senior counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Law Center, said the California regulation sends an important post-Citizens United message.
“They see someone doing that on the national stage and it occurs to them that they can do that in the governor’s race, they can do that in their state Assembly district race, they can do it in a state Senate race,” Ryan said.
In a perfect world we don’t have more enforcement cases, we have compliance.
Jodi Remke, chair of the FPPC
Coordination cases are very hard to prove. In one of the few instances, Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, and the commission reached a settlement after the agency determined that Alejo’s campaign manager had coordinated with an outside committee.
Remke said she does not know if the latest rules will uncover more coordination. “In a perfect world we don’t have more enforcement cases, we have compliance,” she said.
In the days leading up to Thursday’s hearing, political attorneys and other campaign operatives raised concerns about the commission’s initial proposal. Parts were overly broad, they said, or could be unworkable in practice.
The commission largely addressed those, said political attorney Richard Rios. “I think that a lot of these rules, they’re different and they’re new, but I think the commission did a good job of balancing the interests of those engaged in campaign activity” and ensuring everyone complies with non-coordination rules, he said.
Matthew Alvarez, an attorney with the Sutton Law Firm, was more critical of the regulation. “We’ve come to the conclusion it really doesn’t do much, if anything,” he told commissioners. Replied Remke: “The purpose of these is to maintain the very high standards that we have.”