SACRAMENTO -- California lawmakers are circumventing campaign finance limits through "ballot measure" committees that set no caps on the amount donors can contribute, according to a report.
The committees allow legislators to ask contributors for more than the $4,100 per election they can solicit for their own campaigns.
The accounts must be used to support or oppose any ballot measure, but that can include proposals still in the development stage that might never see the light of day, the Sacramento Bee reported (http://bit.ly/12Fy3l9).
Over the past two years legislators collected $2.7 million through these committees. A Bee review found some of those funds were used to pay for items with questionable connections to ballot measures -- including thank-you gifts to donors, a lawmaker's tuition and contributions to nonprofits. Some lawmakers spent the money on out-of-state fundraisers.
Filtering contributions through the committees can "kill two birds with one stone" for donors, said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance and ethics expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"If you support the ballot measure and you want to just support the candidate because of just emotional support, or you want to support the candidate because you want to get something in return, it's kind of a win-win," Levinson told the newspaper.
At least two dozen lawmakers maintained ballot measure committees in the two years leading up to the 2012 election.
They say the committees allow them to help state and local efforts to shape policy and to communicate with voters on issues outside Sacramento.
Assemblyman Isadore Hall's "Inspiration and Hope for California" committee didn't put the funds directly toward any proposals up for a vote in the last two years, the Bee said. But it did spend $6,800 for a seminar at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and $1,700 at the University of Southern California.
Hall, a Compton Democrat, told the newspaper attending what he described as leadership seminars at Harvard and USC helped him play a greater role in formulating and supporting future measures on the ballot. He defended the committee, telling the Bee it creates "opportunity for exposure in terms of different ideas that would affect the state of California."
Phillip Ung, a policy advocate for California Common Cause, told the newspaper the ballot measure committees essentially are "political slush funds" that can be used to offset costs that would usually fall to the more strictly regulated re-election committees.
"In the long term, they can't continue the way they are because they're just being abused by some elected officials," he said.
Information from: The Sacramento Bee, http://www.sacbee.com