Circus acts! Figure skaters! Politicians seeking unlimited donations! Welcome to today’s special edition of “Why is this even legal?”

In a previous episode we looked at the California Legislature’s “spot bills,” those completely blank pieces of legislation passed by lawmakers and filled in later after backroom negotiations. What will be written on them when they finally become law? We don’t know! There are no committee hearings, debates or amendments! Why is this even legal?

Today we look at the little known practice of “behested payments.” What on Earth, you may well ask, is a behested payment?

California’s Fair Political Practices Commission explains on its website that behested payments are “contributions solicited by members of the Assembly, Senate and statewide elected officers. These payments are not considered campaign contributions or gifts, but are made at the ‘behest’ of elected officials to be used for legislative, governmental or charitable purposes.”

Anything over $5,000 has to be disclosed, but there are no limits on how much can be solicited, or donated.

The records of behested payments on the FPPC’s website begin in the late 1990s. Gov. Gray Davis raised $1.57 million for his California Inaugural Committee in 1998 with large donations from unions, trade associations, Indian tribes, aerospace companies, oil companies and many others whose fortunes could be affected by the governor’s actions.

After the inauguration, the “behesting” in the governor’s office quieted down until 2006, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raised $1.67 million for his own inaugural committee, plus another $1.58 million in 2007. Then, from 2008 until he left office, Schwarzenegger “behested” over $10 million in donations to sponsor conferences and events, a trade mission to Asia, and a wrap party.

Jerry Brown was California’s attorney general when he began raising money with behested payments, seeking donations for two charter schools that he founded as mayor of Oakland. In four years, he “behested” $12.7 million to support the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts.

As governor, Brown has raised an additional $17 million in behested payments, almost entirely for the two schools. Over $3.7 million of that total was raised in the first six months of this year.

This unlimited fundraising is troubling both in its scale and its persistence. This isn’t a one-time event and it’s no bake sale. Year after year, millions of dollars are changing hands under the implicit threat that the governor’s decisions may be less favorable to those who are less cooperative.

Did CBS Outdoor Advertising donate $10,000 to the Oakland School for the Arts in 2009 because the New Jersey-based company supports the study of music, theater, dance, figure skating and circus arts? Or because it’s in the billboard business and the attorney general of California asked for a check?

This year, the governor “behested” $50,000 out of the E & J Gallo Winery, $50,000 from bullet-train contractor Tutor Perini, $75,000 from Health Net of California and $100,000 from the cashier’s cage at the San Pablo Lytton Casino, just to name a few. Energy companies, hospital associations, pharmaceutical firms, unions, banks, insurers, retailers, airlines, tech companies and telecom firms all wrote checks to the charter schools when the governor asked them to donate.

Why is it even legal for politicians to use the power of their office to raise unlimited money for “legislative, governmental or charitable purposes”?

Last year, the state Legislature passed a modest reform bill that would have made it illegal for public officials to “behest” payments for charities they or their relatives control.

Gov. Brown vetoed it.

The bill’s sponsors must have missed a bake sale.