There was a clear message when the state Senate in mid-June first rejected a ban on legislators taking campaign contributions during the last 100 days of each lawmaking session, and then partially reversed itself to finally pass a watered-down version covering a much shorter time period.
That message: “We would rather have money than trust.”
The flurry of Senate action came just over two months after it refused to expel three senators who had been either indicted or convicted for perjury or selling their votes and services. Instead, the senators were suspended, leaving millions of citizens without full representation and no hope of getting it soon.
The Senate’s initial rejection, strikingly, came on the very day that two members of the state Assembly paid fines for taking illegally high contributions.
Is it any wonder that a springtime national poll showed California among just seven states where the majority of citizens don’t trust either state or local government to act honestly?
Had the Senate passed the last-100-day contribution ban, it would have been a major start toward restoring trust, as far from perfection as a three-month ban would nevertheless be. That’s because there can never be a ban or a limit on promises lobbyists might make during any time span about future contributions or favors.
But even after it took a week of heat over its initial move, where it adopted a fig leaf consisting of a one-year, one-month, end-of-session ban on members soliciting or accepting contributions, the Senate wasn’t willing even to go to 100 days. Instead, after 100-day sponsor Sen. Alex Padilla wrangled a batch of Republican votes, the Democrat-dominated upper house passed a bill forbidding all legislators from soliciting or accepting contributions from lobbyists and their clients from Aug. 1 until each legislative session’s scheduled end on Aug. 31.
A similar ban will cover the month prior to passage of each year’s budget. The initial Senate-only resolution also applied during this summer’s budget negotiations, but since it passed just days before a budget agreement came, the add-on didn’t mean much. The virtually meaningless initial resolution was a sop to Padilla, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state.
Perhaps the most telling thing about all the Senate action was that its resolution – a measure of what majority Democrats really want – doesn’t apply to any Assembly members and thus leaves out two-thirds of all legislators. There’s also the fact it was a resolution, not a law.
So it wouldn’t be binding beyond this year. Next year, with the pressure presumably off from the indictments and convictions of Democratic Sens. Rod Wright, Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, who knew whether senators would bother to renew it? The later passage of a real bill, a potential law, means the new ban, while shorter than the 100 days Padilla wanted, would apply in all years and to all legislators – if the Assembly passes it, too.
But all this is still much ado about very little. It’s possible for lobbyists to make promises during a 100-day period and it’s even easier for them to do that during a mere month-long hiatus, which makes all the Senate actions far too lenient.
This didn’t stop big talk from key senators. Said the Senate’s newly elected president-to-be, Democrat Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles immediately after the initial resolution passed, the rule intended to “ensure that members of the Senate are focused exclusively on legislative business at these crucial times in the legislative calendar.”
Yeah, right. These good folks are certain to forget about fundraising just because they can’t actually accept checks for a few days. Back in early spring, some of Sacramento’s most prolific fundraisers said even Padilla’s desired 100-day ban would accomplish little. “It’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Dan Weitzman, who gathers funds for Democrats. What passed would be weaker.
All of which means the Senate actions amount to little more than a public relations ploy, intended to convince skeptical voters their legislative senators really are trustworthy. Good luck with that.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.