Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Campaign fund bill killed, but who did it and why?

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Sunshine, it’s been said, is the best political disinfectant.

Indeed, a good argument can be made that rapid and complete disclosure of campaign contributions would do more for political sanitation than all the other nostrums of self-proclaimed reformers.

In that context, Senate Bill 27, which would close obvious loopholes in reporting contributions from supposedly nonprofit groups that can now keep their donors secret, makes sense.

The legislation, carried by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, responds to a flap two years ago in which $11 million passed through several such groups before being spent to oppose Proposition 30, the tax hike being sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown, and to support Proposition 32, which was aimed at limiting labor unions’ political fundraising.

The Fair Political Practices Commission investigated, but only some of the original donors were revealed.

The bill passed the Senate last year, was amended in the Assembly and then failed by one vote in the Senate this week.

While SB 27 should become law as a general observation, slow-motion handling by its putative supporters may have doomed it. The bill could have been enacted in time to be applied to this year’s elections had Democratic leaders simply moved it when they had the votes.

It was originally passed by the Senate on a party-line vote nearly a year ago and languished in the Assembly for months while amendments were written.

It passed the Assembly in January, but a final Senate vote was delayed until after two senators facing criminal charges took leaves of absence, thus erasing the Democratic supermajority, and it fell one vote short this week.

The delay was, managers of the bill say, caused by the logistics of getting 26 senators on the floor at one time to vote.

The Republicans’ spin is that they’d accept the bill were it to go into effect after this year’s elections, complaining that doing it now would change rules in the middle of the game. The Democratic spin is to blame Republicans for protecting mysterious right-wing campaign donors.

Perhaps Democrats really wanted the bill to die without leaving fingerprints.

Why wouldn’t they want to close the loophole? Because the blowup over the mysterious $11 million was a political bonanza that Democrats exploited, helping to pass the tax increase.

However it met its demise, SB 27 has been, in a sense, a Democratic win-win-win.

If it was enacted, it might scare off out-of-state donors on ballot measures – such as one to overhaul public employee pensions. If it died, not only could Democrats blame Republicans for its death, as they are doing now, but the loopholes would remain and they could raise the bogeymen of secret campaign contributions in future campaigns.

When political rules are being “reformed,” nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems.