No hope for finance reform success

SEPT. 2, 2010

As you read this, please keep in mind that I want the new Political Reform Act Task Force to succeed. As someone who’s spent about a decade reading through the campaign finance and personal disclosure reports the act mandates, I would really like to see the money that permeates popular elections presented in a clearer, easier way, and that’s apparently what Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) Chairman Dan Schnur wants the panel to do.

I hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t expect them to do much. The problem is simple: campaign finance reform, as Schnur admitted, puts people to sleep. It’s technical, legalistic and often results in reports that are both voluminous and dull. Reforming it is sometime nearly every politician supports, but few do much to bring about or even define.

The new 25-member task force met for the first time in the USC State Capital Center on Aug. 30. It’s a pretty diverse body of political consultants, attorneys, good government advocates and FPPC personnel. Co-Chairman Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles actually co-wrote the Political Reform Act back in 1973 (it became law the next year).

Too bad they don’t have much time to use all that experience. Schnur, who was director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him FPPC Chairman on June 1 to replace the ailing Ross Johnson, has promised to leave office in January 2011 regardless of the outcome of the November election. Schnur told the task force he wants them done with their work by December.

“While our timeline is short, I’m optimistic that over the course of the next three and half months the group can help develop recommendations that I can take to my fellow commissioners and to the state Legislature for them to consider early next year,” Schnur told the panel. Schnur added that the recommendations could become the basis of bills or, failing that, ballot initiatives.

Stern said the Legislature has amended the act “well over 200 times” since 1975. “Nearly all have been improvements,” he added. As for what the panel might ultimately recommend, well, that’s up in the air.

While panelists agreed that the act is “confusing” and “needs to be clarified, simplified,” at least at this early date they had no idea how to proceed, or even what to focus on. Conflicts of interest? Reporting schedules? Pushing for more electronic filings?

“The objective here is to make disclosure more effective,” co-chairman Charles H. Bell, a political attorney, said.

Michael D. Martello, Los Gatos’ interim town attorney, suggested doing away with the patchwork of 100 or so municipal campaign finance laws that currently dot the California landscape and pushing for a statewide standard. Stern countered that the act’s writers never wanted to impose a “one size fits all” requirement on cities trying to limit campaign money.

Consultant Darius Anderson – who, though he admitted no wrongdoing, recently agreed to pay a $500,000 fine in what the Los Angeles Times called “a New York state investigation into pay-to-play practices involving that state’s pension fund – suggested the panel strengthen the disclosure requirements of “bundling” contributions.

“We have almost too much to look at,” Stern said.

Making matters worse, panelists briefed the task force on previous McPherson Commissions, which convened in 1998 and again in 2005 to tackle Political Reform Act changes. Both commissions also had sizeable panels, but had more than a year to do their work. Both also went absolutely nowhere.

The first commission took on lobbyists, conflicts of interest and enforcement, said task force member Steve Lucas, who sat on that commission. They found that the state’s campaign laws were “overly complex” – so much so that “people could be deterred from participating in the political process.” But its recommendations “gathered dust on the shelf,” Lucas admitted.

Stern, who sat on the second McPherson commission, said it was much the same story with that panel. That one made several recommendations dealing mostly with making it easier to put campaign contributions online. “None were implemented,” Stern said.

“We didn’t brief you on McPherson to discourage you,” Schnur quickly told the panel. “We think they’ll be useful to you. But don’t be constrained by them.”

Even an appearance by Schwarzenegger didn’t seem to add much. “I have been a reform advocate since I came into office,” he said, though he didn’t elaborate on how he defined “reform.” Every bit a lame duck as Schnur, Schwarzenegger’s celebrity status did attract three television news crews, but they practically tripped over themselves exiting the room the instant Schwarzenegger left, which was right when the task force actually got to business.

The task force will meet again sometime this month in Southern California, though no date has yet been set.

-Anthony Pignataro

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