How Do You Reform A Reform?

SEPT. 28, 2010

By ANTHONY PIGNATARO

The state Political Reform Act Task Force will largely steer clear of issues such as conflict of interest and lobbying as it seeks to rewrite the state law governing politicking, the panel decided Monday. At its second hearing, held simultaneously at locations in Los Angeles and at the Fair Political Practices Commission headquarters in Sacramento, the task force agreed to spend most of the next three months focusing on changes to the Political Reform Act dealing with campaign finance.

Lobbying and conflict of interest areas “get pretty tricky,” FPPC Chairman Dan Schnur said at one point during the hearing, adding that the limited time the panel has dictated that they focus on campaign finance issues. A new panel not bound by the time constraints of the current task force could examine the broader, more controversial issues, Schnur said.

The 25-member panel will set up small sub-committees to discuss conflict of interest disclosure thresholds and “the revolving door” between public service and lobbying, though the directions they might take are impossible to say at this time.

“It will take a lot of time to see what investments should and shouldn’t be included,” task force co-chairman Bob Stern said from the Los Angeles hearing. He questioned whether it was more important for a candidate to disclose a $3,000 investment in IBM stock or a $3,000 investment in the family business.

Schnur also asked the panel to consider the “giggle factor” when making recommendations, saying (for instance) that restricting legislative officials who are dating from giving gifts to each other might not be in the panel’s best interest.

For the most part, the panel will be looking at issues surrounding electronic filing of campaign finance data – either through forms or in databases – contributor thresholds, expenditure reporting and disclaimers on so-called robo-calls as well as slate mailers.

Though FPPC staffers make up nearly half of the task force, the panelists hold wildly different views on how to proceed on some issues – what to do about the thresholds that trigger campaign donation reporting being a big one.

After Stern asked if it was appropriate to keep the current $100 threshold or perhaps lower it, panelist Rich Schlackman, a political consultant, offered a different perspective.

“I’d go the other way on down-ballot races,” he said. “I’d like to see talk about raising those [thresholds].”

After Stern said that he and co-chair Chuck Bell agreed to steer clear of raising thresholds because it might prove “too controversial,” Schlackman said, good naturedly, “I would love to have that fight with you!”

On questions of how to handle matters like slate mailers and issue ads, panelists would kept repeating the same phrase – “This is a big, big issue.” When the question of how to handle expenditure reporting came up, Schlackman offered a perspective seldom heard in such hearings – namely, that there’s too much current disclosure.

“Sub-vendor disclosure can be too much,” he said of the requirement that campaigns say who prints their mailers. “No other state does that. And it’s unfair to the printing industry, because it forces them to disclose their prices and profits.”

During the public comment portion of the hearing, Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation said her organization was very interested in making it easier to find out who is funding ballot measure committees (click here to read a CalWatchdog story from June on this very subject).

It’s something of a shell game,” she said as various FPPC staffers on the task force nodded in agreement. “It’s very difficult for the public to see where the money actually comes from.”

Over the next few weeks the panel will break up into smaller committees and thrash out all these issues, and perhaps more. They won’t meet again until Nov. 17, after the election.

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