Dan Walters: Legislative money ban would fail

04/07/2013 12:00 AM

04/07/2013 7:36 AM

Dan Schnur came to Sacramento a couple of decades ago as a media spokesman for then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Schnur later became chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission and today directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Schnur, one of the state's most knowledgeable and insightful political observers, is proposing a ban on legislators raising campaign money while in session, arguing that it would reduce special-interest money.

"Caught between the competing pressures of formulating policy for the people and soliciting money for their next campaign," Schnur wrote in The Bee, "enterprising legislators can schedule a fundraising reception within a five-minute walk from the floor of the state Assembly or Senate, rush out to scoop up a stack of campaign contributions, and be back at their desks before the ink on the checks has dried."

True enough. But what he proposes wouldn't materially affect special-interest influence on the legislative process, and, like other supposed "reforms," might make influence-peddling less transparent.

The Capitol's fundamental business is extracting money from some and giving it to others – sometimes openly, through taxes, fees and the budget, and sometimes indirectly, through measures imposing mandates, carving out exemptions and so forth.

A ballpark estimate is that decisions by the Legislature, the governor, other elected officials and their appointees has an annual impact in excess of a half-trillion dollars – via taxes, budgets, federal funds, insurance premiums, utility rates, horse racing franchises, casino gambling compacts, medical procedure rules and so forth.

More than a thousand lobbyists are employed by many thousands of clients to affect those decisions. A few hundred million dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying fees are relative chicken feed.

Banning direct contributions doesn't affect the underlying stakes, nor does it reduce the competition for legislative seats. But it would encourage more "independent expenditures" and other subterfuges that mask the real motives and identities of those who seek influence in the Capitol.

Also, a legislative fundraising ban would not affect the governor – who plays an equal role in deciding what becomes law and how those laws are implemented via administrative rules – nor other officials, such as the insurance commissioner or members of tax boards.

Without repealing the Bill of Rights, one cannot truly block the influence of campaign money. The better route would be to require full and immediate public disclosure of all campaign funds so we could make the connections to political decisions, with draconian penalties for violation.

Driving political money further underground, as Schnur's proposal would do, is not the answer.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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