SACRAMENTO -- After state Sen. Leland Yee's stunning arrest earlier this year, the Legislature's highest-ranking member urged his colleagues to finally fix a long-standing problem in California politics -- the corrupting allure of money.
"Sometimes it takes a crisis," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said after denouncing the San Francisco Democrat's suspected ties to international gunrunning during a speech on the Senate floor.
Since voting to suspend Yee and two other California senators indicted in recent months, Sacramento lawmakers have held a "day of reflection" and considered more than a dozen new pieces of ethics reform legislation. But while support for bills requiring more disclosure of gifts and contributions remains strong, interest in tougher proposals that would restrict politicians' fundraising and access to lavish free trips around the globe has waned significantly in the past three months.
"You can't be against an ethics bill the day after the scandal, but it's no longer the day after the scandal," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in campaign finance law.
Proposals that seek to ban fundraisers at lobbyists' homes, double the amount of campaign finance reporting required annually and limit the value of gifts lawmakers can receive from outside groups passed nearly unanimously.
These are worthy pursuits, Levinson said, but they're clearly not the kind of systemic changes Steinberg was talking about several months ago when he lamented the distrust sown by the "legal, acceptable and necessary" truth that money can corrupt.
"We're nibbling around the edges, grabbing the low-hanging fruit," Levinson said.
In February, Sen. Alex Padilla introduced a bill that would create fundraising "blackout" periods when lawmakers running for re-election are barred from accepting campaign contributions. Under the proposal, fundraising while negotiating the budget and during the last several weeks of the legislative session would be forbidden.
Lawmakers have tried to impose such blackout periods three other times over the past decade, but none of the attempts was successful in passing legislation in effect in 15 states.
With three colleagues -- Yee and Sens. Ronald Calderon, D-Montebello, and Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood -- possibly facing prison time (Wright already has been convicted of voter fraud), Padilla said he hoped this year the timing would be right. Instead, his bill is on life support.
"Every legislator I've talked to swears up and down that their political activities are separate from how we make policy and how we cast our votes," Padilla said. "We can all say that until we're blue in the face. But if public perception is otherwise, that's not good for democracy."
Senate Bill 1101 survived a vote in the Senate only after Padilla agreed to an amendment sought by Senate Republicans that also imposes fundraising restrictions on nonincumbent candidates for the Legislature. Otherwise, those challengers would have an unfair fundraising advantage, the lawmakers argued.
Padilla now is hearing new complaints from Democrats who sit on the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee. A majority of the panel's members declined to cast votes on the bill when they reviewed the proposal last month, leaving it without enough support to advance.
"It's been a grind," said Padilla, a candidate for secretary of state in November's election.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, said the proposed legislation "simply had too many inconsistencies and unresolved issues" to win his support in committee. He noted that the ban would not apply to nonlegislator candidates seeking local or statewide office. That's unfair to sitting lawmakers running for those offices, he said.
Asked why the bill couldn't be amended to address that concern, Padilla said court decisions in other states indicate that it would invite legal challenges.
Last month, the Senate adopted a new rule that imposes a fundraising ban on its members for the last four weeks of the legislative session, but there are no legal penalties for officials who break the rules. Senators who accept checks during the blackout period can only be reprimanded by their colleagues.
So far, the Assembly has declined to adopt a similar rule.
Padilla isn't the only lawmaker to have an ethics reform bill picked apart this year.
Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, saw key elements of a wide-ranging proposal to strengthen California's landmark Political Reform Act deleted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, who will replace the termed-out Steinberg as the Senate's leader.
The committee is supposed to amend legislation that would be too costly to implement. In Hill's case, however, the committee eliminated pieces of his proposal that would have barred lawmakers from taking expensive free trips and prevented indicted lawmakers from using their campaign accounts as legal defense funds.
Hill, who sits on the committee, said he doesn't know why those changes were made. Had he objected, he added, he would have been forced to kill his own bill.
"What works for the committee may not work for you, but if you want the bill to move forward, that's how it goes," he said.
Provisions of the bill that remain intact will prohibit elected officials from contributing campaign funds to nonprofits run by their family members, block lawmakers from using campaign funds to pay their bills and require groups that pay for legislators' travel to disclose their donors and the cost of the trips.
De Leon declined to say why Hill's bill was amended by the committee. But Dan Reeves, de Leon's chief of staff, defended the changes.
"It's both commonplace and expected that the Appropriations Committee will, in the course of its duties, make improvements to bills to make them more workable," Reeves said.
Steinberg was unavailable for comment last week.
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, also authored a sweeping ethics reform bill that would, among other things, prohibit lawmakers from using campaign accounts for criminal defense or to pay the salaries of their relatives, but it failed to clear a committee last month when two senators -- Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, and Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley -- withheld their votes.
De Leon and Steinberg deserve credit for pushing through new Senate rules that impose fundraising restrictions, offer whistle-blower protection to Senate staff and require the chamber to hire an ombudsman, but overall lawmakers' efforts to reform Sacramento politics have been lukewarm, said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
"It's pretty clear that most legislators are only interested in political reform in months when one of their colleagues is being arrested," said Schnur, who lost a bid to become secretary of state in June's primary election. "As soon as the headlines faded, so did the interest in the Capitol for any meaningful effort to clean up the system."