Editorials

Lawmakers who believe in transparency ought to vote to close campaign finance loophole

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, is sponsoring Assembly Bill 1234, which would shut a loophole that has been lubricating political campaigns for a decade.
Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, is sponsoring Assembly Bill 1234, which would shut a loophole that has been lubricating political campaigns for a decade. Sacramento Bee file

Not that they can do much about it, but Democrats regularly denounce Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that led to wide-open federal campaign spending by corporations and wealthy people.

Democrats went so far as to place a measure on California’s ballot last November urging that Congress approve a constitutional amendment to repeal it, more as a way to drive up Democratic turnout than to effect change.

On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled Assembly Elections Committee will get a chance to put their votes where their rhetoric is by approving Assembly Bill 1234 by Assemblyman Marc Levine. The bill would shine light on money that flows into one dim corner of California elections by restricting the size of donations from political parties to candidates. Don’t count on it passing.

Under Proposition 34 of 2000, donations directly to candidates are capped at $4,200 per election. But the measure imposed no limits on donations to political party committees. Those committees, in turn, can spend unlimited sums on behalf of candidates and give $35,200 directly to the candidates.

It’s a legal way to launder campaign money and obscure the source of donations. In 2002, Republicans used the loophole to raise $1 million from an insurance company and spread it among candidates. The infusion didn’t become known until 2003, long after the votes were counted.

Last year, Democrats used the loophole to take millions from the teachers union, AT&T and others and shift it to party committees and wage campaigns, as The Bee’s Jim Miller reported.

Because AB 1234 would shut a perfectly good loophole that has lubricated campaigns for a decade, party leaders, politicians and moneyed interests would prefer that the bill go away. Why mess with a good thing, right?

Toni Trigueiro, a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, which regularly spends millions to get its way in campaigns, tried to explain why the union believes the Legislature should kill the bill, writing a letter of opposition that includes this mind-bending sentence:

“We believe our members participating at the grassroots level in local campaigns would be adversely impacted by the inclusion on political party committees in current financial contribution limitations as well as could result in fewer individuals seeking election to political party committees.”

Lobbyists for the 325,000-member teachers union might not know how to write. But they’re well-schooled in killing legislation, so don’t expect legislators will shut the party loophole. But Levine’s idea has merit. Lawmakers who believe in transparency ought to vote for it.

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