As is the case in most state capitals, in Sacramento there are at least two conflicting universal truths: First, strict campaign finance and disclosure laws are designed to lessen the influence of money in state politics. Second, a primary purpose of many elected state representatives is to find creative ways to circumvent those laws.
This conflict again becomes painfully manifest when one reviews a Sacramento Bee analysis of the finances behind so-called ballot measure committees that have no caps on the amount a particular donor can contribute to them.
Campaign laws limit legislators from raising more than $4,100 per election cycle from any one contributor. But campaign accounts managed by elected officials and created ostensibly to support or oppose a particular ballot measure have no such caps. So, of course, the Bee's analysis found that at least two dozen legislators have created ballot committees that have run up a ton of questionable expenses paid for with money from those accounts.
The loophole here -- and there is always a loophole -- is that the committees are not limited to measures currently on a ballot. No sir. They can include measures that are little more than embryos in the democratic process that may never actually make it through the process to actually appear on the ballot. In other words, the committees often are really just vehicles to skirt campaign finance laws.
The Bee's analysis revealed that in the last two years legislators have collected at least $2.7 million through such committees and that some of the expenditures have been of ... uh ... dubious merit. Such things as paying $8,500 for Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton to attend seminars at Harvard University and at the University of Southern California.
Hall explained that the seminars offered him exposure to different ideas that would affect the state of California. Apparently he was unable to find any such ideas from books, newspapers, his staff, think-tank reports, the Internet or, God forbid, his constituents.
Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles also used ballot measure committee funds to pay more than $2,000 for "thank-you gloves." These were commemorative boxing gloves sent to 21 lobbyists and other power brokers who attended a fundraiser for his ballot measure committee at a 2012 Las Vegas prizefight.
If such techniques were being employed by a criminal enterprise, a prosecutor might call it money laundering. But, since this practice is being engaged in by our duly elected representatives, we will just call it money filtering. Regardless of what it is called, we find the practice disgusting and sleazy, and agree with the assessment of Common Cause that these committees are little more than political slush funds.
It is clear to us that elected officials siphoning money out of ballot measure committees is a campaign practice that is ripe for reform. It is true that previous attempts to limit these committees have run into legal problems as written, but that doesn't mean those laws should not be rewritten.
In fact, we think the Legislature has a moral obligation to do just that.