How campaign donation caps are like jumbo shrimp

Gov. Jerry Brown
Gov. Jerry Brown jvillegas@sacbee.com

Like jumbo shrimp, campaign contribution limit is an oxymoron.

Donations given directly to candidates for governor are capped at $27,200 per election, or $54,400 for the primary and general elections. Direct donations to legislative candidates are capped at $4,100 per election.

But the open secret is that politicians easily can skirt the limits. A preferred way in the 2014 campaign is to establish committees to raise money for ballot measures. The law permits donors to give unlimited sums to ballot measure campaigns.

Gov. Jerry Brown portrays himself as frugal as he busily raises millions to promote Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond, and Proposition 2, which would keep budget spending under control.

We’re not implying Brown is compelling contributions, but almost every major interest doing business in the Capitol is pitching in.

There is the $100,000-plus club: Wal-Mart, Teamsters, building trade unions, Occidental Petroleum, Aera Energy, California Hospital Association, Health Net, the California Dental Association, and cigarette maker Philip Morris USA.

Wal-Mart and unions are at war. Hospitals and health insurance companies provide for people who get sick from cigarettes. They put their differences aside to help Brown pass Propositions 1 and 2, for the good of California, and ensure they retain access to the guy who occupies the corner office.

Several state legislators have ballot measure accounts, too, allowing them to bypass contribution limits and identify themselves with measures that have popular appeal.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, took $35,000 from the California Independent Petroleum Association, $25,000 from the California Association of Health Facilities, and $15,000 from Hilmar Cheese Co., to promote Propositions 1 and 2.

Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, sent out an invitation last month for a two-day golf fundraiser at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay seeking up to $40,000 per donor for Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy. Several donors responded, including Hilex, the plastic bag maker that is battling the state ban on plastic grocery bags.

Charles and Molly Munger, the children of billionaire Charles Munger Sr., can give $4,100 to individual legislative candidates. But Charles Jr. gave $1.2 million to the California Republican Party, and Molly gave $225,000 to the California and Los Angeles Democratic parties. Parties, in turn, pour hundreds of thousands into individual Assembly and Senate races.

Voters thought they were approving campaign finance limits in 2000 when they voted for Proposition 34 in 2000. But politicians wrote the measure. Honest thieves that they are, the authors fully understood what they were doing.

At least California has strong public disclosure provisions. Donations must be fully disclosed and posted on the California secretary of state’s website within a day of their receipt. They are readily accessible, except when the secretary of state’s website crashes, as it did on Tuesday. It is bittersweet.