Dan Morain

Dan Morain: No matter the reforms, human nature won’t change

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

The last time the FBI caught a Sacramento politician taking $3,000, California voters lashed out and imposed term limits.

Explaining that he had been out late drinking, the undercover FBI agent worried he might have written out the check for the wrong amount, $3,000, and urged state Sen. Joseph Montoya to “look at that thing real close to be sure.”

As a camera secretly taped him at a restaurant near the Capitol, Montoya quipped that it was for 10 times the agreed-upon amount, “which is all right.” Not amused, jurors in 1990 convicted Montoya. Later that year, campaign consultants played on voter cynicism generated by the bribery scandal.

“A stench of greed and vote-selling hangs over Sacramento because lifetime-in-office incumbents think it’s their government, not yours,” backers said in their official argument for Proposition 140, the term limit initiative.

The so-called reform ended lifetime incumbency but did nothing to alter greed, or the going price. According to the FBI affidavit reported last month by Al Jazeera America in the investigation into state Sen. Ron Calderon, an undercover agent “gave Ronald Calderon a white envelope containing $3,000 in cash” as he drove Calderon to the Miami airport for a return flight to Sacramento. The affidavit alleges that Calderon accepted $88,000, generally in increments of $3,000 and $5,000.

The Legislature had its problems in the 1980s. But term limits were hardly a reform. If anything, the tie between politicians and money is stronger now. Good legislators are forced from office too soon.

Some step down before their tenure is up – sometimes to take lucrative outside jobs, sometimes to extricate themselves from a partisan and dysfunctional place.

Former Sen. Michael Rubio, who represented the Kern County oil patch, quit early this year to go to work for Chevron.

Sen. Noreen Evans, a Sonoma County Democrat, announced in August she plans to return to full-time law practice when her term ends next year, instead of seeking a final term in a race she almost certainly would have won.

“It is very challenging to get anything done right,” Evans said, disappointed that Democrats, with their two-thirds majority, didn’t approve her bill to impose an oil severance tax.

Among the aspects she won’t miss is fundraising, which can be all-consuming. “The money that is flowing in and around the Capitol is just obscene,” Evans said.

Sen. Bill Emmerson, a Riverside County Republican, was in the Capitol last week to cast his final votes as a lawmaker, stripping Calderon of his assignments and expanding the Senate ethics committee.

He is quitting as of Dec. 1, rather than complete the four-year term to which he was elected a year ago. He hasn’t announced what he will do once he leaves, but said the Calderon matter “doesn’t bode well” for the institution.

“Maybe it has to do with the fundraising aspects of this place,” he said.

But he has been a thoughtful and bipartisan lawmaker, the sort Californians should want to represent them. He said he is particularly put off by “the hyper-partisanship” by members of both parties.

“Term limits have changed the dynamics of this place in a very big way, not in a good way,” Emmerson said. “There is not a lot of institutional knowledge, and by the time (legislators) get some, they’re gone.”

Emmerson might not have won office if it weren’t for a side impact of another so-called reform: Proposition 34, a measure that was sold to voters in 2000 as a way to limit direct donations to candidates.

Instead of giving directly to candidates, interest groups pour millions into independent campaigns to elect legislators they believe will advance their interests. The California Dental Association spent $1 million to elect Emmerson, an orthodontist by profession, to the Assembly and later the Senate.

Now that the FBI is back in the Capitol, there will be new “reform” attempts.

“Historically, the efforts for reform get a lift when you have a scandal like this,” said Derek Cressman, the former Common Cause of California executive who is running for secretary of state, the post that oversees elections and, in the right hands, could take a leading role enforcing campaign laws.

Cressman is mulling over the possibility of placing an initiative on the 2014 ballot to further regulate politicians and their money. Among his ideas: banning gifts, limiting amounts politicians can solicit for their pet charities and family members, and restricting the number of campaign committees politicians can control.

Calderon has open accounts for campaigns for the Assembly, controller and Congress, plus an officeholder account for miscellaneous expenses, and a legal defense fund, for obvious reasons.

Whatever ideas emerge in 2014, let’s hope they are smarter than the blunt object that is term limits, and don’t increase the impact of money. But no matter the reforms, human nature won’t change.