Dan Walters

Walters: Where there's politics, there will be money flowing

The legendary Assembly speaker of the 1960s, Jesse Unruh, said it most succinctly: "Money is the mother's milk of politics."

The decades-old history of political reform in California has pitted groups seeking to limit in some way the flow of special interest money to officeholders and candidates against those who make such contributions, as well as the recipients.

They have done battle inside the Legislature, in ballot measures and in the courts -- and it's been largely a draw.

Thirteen years ago, the reformers scored a big win when voters passed Proposition 208, which would impose tight limits on political money, but the political establishment fought back with a judicial challenge that set aside some of its provisions and a 2000 ballot measure, Proposition 34, that superseded Proposition 208.

Written in secret and quickly jammed through the Legislature, Proposition 34 purported to be a reform by limiting direct contributions. But it left the door open to virtually unfettered fund raising and spending through supposedly "independent expenditure committees" and political parties.

On Monday, the state Fair Political Practices Commission issued a report on what's happened since voters adopted the measure and, not surprisingly, found that more than $1.1 billion had changed hands, nearly $400,000 per day, much of it indirectly through the loopholes in Proposition 34.

"These methods allow candidates and officeholders to evade the intent of the people of California," FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson said in a statement, "and this report will help increase awareness about the staggering amount of special interest money raised in California and foster a greater understanding of how they navigate around the voter-approved contribution limits."

Johnson's statement is reminiscent of Capt. Renault's declaration in the classic movie "Casablanca" that he was "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on" in Rick's cafe -- just before he pockets his winnings.

Johnson, as a state senator, helped draft Proposition 34 and voted for it, well aware, like everyone else involved, that it would undermine Proposition 208's tighter campaign limits. The loopholes that Johnson decries now were written specifically to give special interests a way to pump money into politics without writing checks directly to politicians -- making it just that more difficult for the public to know who was giving to whom.

Political decisions have multibillion-dollar economic consequences, and those affected positively and negatively always will seek to influence them. One cannot effectively limit campaign contributions without repealing the Bill of Rights. Measures such as Proposition 34 merely drive the business underground.

The only campaign finance reform that makes sense is requiring full and immediate reporting of contributions, with severe penalties for violation. Everything else is just wishful thinking, or a Proposition 34-like sham.

Contact Walters at dwalters@sacbee.com.