Bill Boyarsky
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Sacramento may gut LA campaign reform

Showing they are buddies—or conspirators—when it comes to something as dear to their hearts as campaign money, Democratic and Republican state legislators are sneaking through a bill that would gut laws in Los Angeles and other cities limiting campaign contributions.

Democrats and Republicans joined in a 77-0 Assembly vote to send the killer bill to the Senate. It will now be heard by Senate committees, voted on by the full Senate and, if passed, go to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The proposal is a real stinker. We on the ethics commission voted unanimously to ask City Council and the mayor to oppose this attempt to wipe out cities’ campaign contribution limit laws.

The most important provision of the bill would forbid cities from imposing limits on campaign contributions to political parties, according to Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, which advocates campaign reform.

These contributions from the state Democratic and Republican parties have become a big deal in local politics even though local elections are nonpartisan. .

That wasn’t always the case. Candidates for mayor and council once raised most of their money from local sources. Some contributors were just plain voters and others were special interests who did business at City Hall. They were all Angelenos pushing their agendas, exercising their First Amendment rights.

But campaigns became so expensive that candidates needed more money. In 1996, the campaigns got a huge break. The legislature proposed, and the voters approved, Proposition 34 which eased campaign contribution regulatory laws, permitting unlimited contributions to political parties.

It allowed the parties to pass on these unlimited contributions to local candidates, provided that the candidates didn’t actually ask for them. But that’s meaningless in politics, where things are done with a wink and a nod. Proposition 34 meant that anything goes.

Los Angeles tried to limit these contributions. It imposed a $500 limit on these contributions used for city campaigns. But the state parties didn’t like our limit.

Lance Olson, a Sacramento attorney who drafted the “anything goes” state law, argued against local laws like ours.

His objections became part of the bill that would wipe out the Los Angeles limits. A San Diego Republican assemblyman, Martin Garrick, introduced it. His explanation was a great example of Sacramento obfuscation:

“This bill clarifies existing regulations regarding member communications for political purposes. This bill is necessary due to conflicting interpretations caused by recent federal, state, and local laws expanding the Political Reform Act of 1974.”

Ethics Commission President Gil Garcetti and Executive Director LeeAnn Pelham see it differently.

If our limit is overturned by the Garrick bill, they said, “an individual could give an organization $1 million….without limitation. The organization could, in turn, spend that $1 million to directly benefit a candidate and…it would not be limited.”

The Democratic and Republican parties could troll California, soliciting money from the fattest fat cats and funnel it into Los Angeles campaigns. Every special interest in City Hall, now limited by city law, could pour unlimited amounts into the state party treasuries, and it could go to local campaigns.

And do you think these donors won’t expect their contributions to be remembered when they appear before the airport, the water and power and the harbor commissions for contracts or when they ask for zoning breaks from the Planning Commission? Los Angeles and other cities have put in a lot of thought and effort into regulating their local elections. It would be a shame if the legislature nullifies all that work.

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