What Is Holding Up California Ethics Reform?

Michelle Bergmann
California Reporting Reporter

2014 has seen numerous corruption stories in California government. Suspended State Senator Rod Wright awaits sentencing for eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud. The FBI charged state Senator Ronald Calderon with accepting bribes. And most recently, suspended state Senator Leland Yee was indicted on federal corruption and gun running charges, along with a notorious San Francisco criminal figure memorably known as “Shrimp Boy.” All three senators have been suspended indefinitely.

“If two FBI raids on the Capitol aren’t enough to remind legislators on the importance of government ethics, nothing will be,” said Peter DeMarco, a spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus.

The three cases started a public clamor for ethics reform, resulting in several pieces of legislation being introduced earlier this year. But as the San Jose Mercury News reports, enthusiasm for tough ethics reform seems to be waning, despite the stark reminders of the need for public trust in elected officials.

“Right after the scandals happened, everyone had to be in favor of ethics reform. But that was months ago… and months are years in political terms,” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor specializing in campaign finance law and is also vice president of the L.A. City Ethics Commission.

Since the political drama unfolded in Sacramento, more than twelve ethics reform bills have been introduced. From banning fundraising events at lobbyist’s homes to doubling statutory fines for bribery, these measures all aim to promote greater government transparency and prevent public corruption.

“At a minimum, the legislature has a responsibility to ensure the public’s trust is not broken,” added DeMarco.

But so far the process to ensure the public’s trust has been slow. Many reform bills are being heavily revised or quietly being tucked away.

Take, for example, state Senator Jerry Hill’s proposal to strengthen California’s Political Reform Act. Parts of the proposal, like banning lawmakers from receiving all-expenses paid trips, were eliminated. Or Senate Republican leader Bob Huff’s bill which would prohibit lawmakers from using campaign accounts to finance criminal defense or pay the salaries of relatives, failed to pass a key committee when two Senators withheld their votes.

With the Legislature essentially policing the activities of their members, Levinson was not surprised by the waning enthusiasm. In addition to their jobs as legislators, they need to raise campaign money.

“Legislators are asking themselves, ‘Do I really want to subject myself to these restrictions?’” said Levinson.

In the wake of the three indictments, CA Fwd, which has been working on reforms to protect public trust for several years, issued the Path Toward Trust which is a set of bipartisan proposals designed to restore public trust in government.

“California legislators work hard and take their jobs seriously,” said Phillip Ung, director of public affairs for CA Fwd. “They understand that earning the public’s trust is vital to the success of the state.”

Ung noted that this legislative session has been productive, with the Legislature approving big issues like an on-time and balanced state budget that continues to pay down debt, and a bipartisan agreement on the constitutional amendment to enact a new budget reserve set to appear on the November 2014 ballot.

“Many voters are hopeful that additional ethics legislation will pass this session,” Ung added. “Legislators understand that restoring trust in government is critical.”

Trust is critical to Leila Pedersen as well, policy coordinator at California Common Cause. Pedersen argues that, while an ethics reform bill may seem like it doesn’t affect the public directly, it does.

“When a Senator like Leland Yee is arrested by the FBI that has implications on every piece of legislation he has touched,” said Pedersen. “It can compromise education reform, the environment or the economy.”

Others added that voters also have a part to play in ethics reform. With a lack of engagement, legislation can simply fall to the wayside.

“Part of this is shame on us. I think there is a feeling that not everyone is watching these reforms to see if anything will happen,” said Levinson.

But something is expected to happen. Some reform bills have passed or are expected to pass. One bill approved by the Senate imposes a blackout period for fundraising during the last four weeks of the legislative session. But for Levinson, these types of bills just skim the surface.

“I think we have to see what would serve a purpose, versus just saying, ‘Well we passed an ethics reform!’”, said Levinson.

Then there is opposition behind the scenes where ethics reform can get complicated.

“Politicians don’t always think like the average voter,” said Ung. “Legislators are, for the most part, political elite. They think about problems and they think about unintended consequences.”

Those consequences include the ones from a blackout on funding: If applied to only members of the Senate, shouldn’t it also be applied to all government leaders? Or what about candidates running against legislators? Do they get to fundraise while the incumbent isn’t?

“Members put a lot of thought and time into the proposals and if we want to get it right, rushing to get knee jerk response is not going to solve the problem,” said DeMarco.

But maybe it’s not just the thought and time put into ethics reform that has legislators waning. Perhaps, as Levinson says, “It’s a lack of will.”

You can follow Michelle on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MicheBergmann.

Cross-posted at California Forward Reporting.

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