Commentary

03/12/2014  by Christopher Nelson,  by and Alexandra Bjerg

California Legislators regulating themselves with new transparency bills


(photo credit: Emily Orpin)

Last week, a series of bills known as the California Accountability in Public Service (CAPS) Act and meant to foster greater public trust in government were announced in the California Legislature. Sponsored by California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Senator Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), the package represents the type of common sense ethics legislation that bolster both transparency and accountability among those who serve all Californians.

“These ethics-related proposals are consistent with the Era of Political Reform that is well underway and that California Forward has supported since 2008,” the good governance group said in a statement last week, noting that “2014 is an important year to promote these significant reforms, recapture voter trust and increase voter engagement in state governance.”

The package of legislation aims to reduce the influence of lobbyists and increase the frequency with which lawmakers must disclose their financial delaings.

“The CAPS Act will ban all gifts from lobbyists, establish a quarterly disclosure period, cut by more than half the annual dollar limit on allowable gifts and ban fundraisers at lobbyist’s homes," said Sen. Ricardo Lara in a statement summarizing the bills. "This legislation represents a new day in accountability for our state government and is one of the most significant proposals to change political practices in decades.”

Perhaps most notable, however, is that by self-imposing these regulations, the authors are putting public interest instead of self interest.

For example, regarding SB 1441: The FPPC sent Steinberg a warning letter for holding a campaign event at lobbyist Kevin Sloat's house where Sloat provided non-monetary contributions totaling more than $500 including items such as flowers, beverages and cigars. Steinberg is one of many elected officials who received warning letters after being deemed unaware that Sloat was covering the expenses. Hosting a fundraiser at a lobbyists house would be prohibited under the bill authored by Sen. Steinberg.

And for SB 1443: According to Kevin De Leon's Statement of Economic Interest, which he filed earlier this month and can be found here, the Los Angeles Dodgers gave him $130 in baseball tickets on July 12, 2013. He also reported receiving $414 in theme park tickets from Comcast/NBC Universal on August 5, 2013. Under the bill he's authored, he'd be prohibited from accepting both of these gifts and anything else along the lines of sports tickets, golf games or spa treatments.

It’s laudable that two of the three authors of the bills have pushed to change rules from which they have benefited from in the past. California Forward applauds all three senators for leading by example and taking a critical step toward restoring public trust in government.

Just recently, two graduate students at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley conducted an experiment that puts some science behind the notion that money equals access in politics. They sent out emails as part of a real Congressional lobbying effort pretending to be both donors and constituents. They found that the response rate was almost six times higher to the emails coming from donors.

Not that science was needed to prove what was already considered a hard and fast truism. However, it only adds weight to not just the introduction of this legislation, but codifying bills that further limit the influence of money in politics and provide a clearer picture of lawmakers' financial dealings into law. With trust on the mend, only then can we as a state can move on to dealing with the bigger issues of the drought, tax reform and establishing a rainy day fund.

Categories: Democracy, Elections, Transparency

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