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The Glaring Flaws in California’s Political Pay-to-Play Law

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A law to curb campaign contributions to local government officials from those affected by official business faces a legal challenge. (Shutterstock)
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A wave of corruption scandals has washed over California’s local governments in recent years, particularly in Southern California.

Bribery and self-dealing is so common among small cities in Los Angeles County that the speaker of the state Assembly, Anthony Rendon, has described the area he represents as a “corridor of corruption.

Last month, Jose Huizar, a member of the Los Angeles City Council for 15 years, pleaded guilty to federal charges of racketeering and tax evasion for extorting at least $1.5 million in bribes from developers of real estate projects.

This week, another former Los Angeles councilman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, went on trial in federal court for allegedly, as a county supervisor, routing contracts to the University of Southern California in return for benefits for his son, former assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, including a $100,000 grant to the son’s nonprofit corporation.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

Out-and-out bribery violates both state and federal law and quite a few local officials, both elected and appointed, and some state legislators have been prosecuted.

Just below blatant tit-for-tat bribery, legally speaking, is another layer known colloquially as “pay-to-play.” Those seeking beneficial acts from political figures, such as trash hauling contracts or development permits, understand that they need to make campaign contributions to increase their chances of success.

In the 1980s, the Legislature enacted laws to curb campaign contributions to elected officials who sit on state boards. They were inspired by allegations that local government officials sitting on the California Coastal Commission were being showered with campaign money from property developers.

Last year, state Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat who once was the city’s mayor, carried a bill to expand the 1980s laws to local governments. Senate Bill 1439 was backed by political reform groups and sailed through the Legislature without a single negative vote or formal opposition.

The new law went into effect on Jan. 1, essentially prohibiting contributions of more than $250 to any local elected official from anyone seeking contracts, permits or licenses from the board or council on which the official serves. It would be retroactive, requiring the official who received such contributions in the past to give the money back.

Last month, a coalition of business groups and a few elected officials sued to overturn the law, saying it “is overbroad and violates the constitutional rights of thousands of contributors and local elected officials.”

“We have become numb to the legal corruption that has enveloped our democracy,” Glazer said this week in response. “Pay-to-play is antithetical to an honest and ethical government, and it should be rooted out and killed like a cancer that has affected the body politic.”

Law Exempts Unions

While the situation Glazer seeks to address is a real one, his new law could ensnare an official who innocently accepted a campaign contribution, and perhaps spent it to get elected, only to learn months later that his vote would affect a contributor.

That said, one obvious flaw is that it applies to a very narrow set of official acts. It would not, for example, affect a local government’s contract with its workers’ union, due to specific exemption in the original 1980s laws. Yet, unions are among the most active favor-seeking interest groups.

Also, the law would not apply to legislators or other state-level politicians, including the governor. They rake in immense amounts of campaign money from interest groups seeking to affect their decisions but, unlike local officials, are not required to avoid votes on issues affecting their contributors, including state employee unions.

If the law is good for the local goose, it should also be good for the state gander.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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