GUEST COMMENTARY | Contributed
A new California law that took effect this year may be the most important political reform the state has enacted in a half century. No wonder special interests and the politicians they help elect are trying to kill it. The law takes aim at the practice known as “pay-to-play,” where individuals, groups and corporations make campaign contributions to local government officials just before and after they vote on items providing a direct financial benefit to the donor.
You might think that such blatant conflicts of interest were already against the law but they were not. Since the 1970s, California’s Political Reform Act has banned conflicts where elected officials vote on matters affecting their own financial interest. And since the 1980s, we have banned appointed members of local boards and commissions from taking action on matters that affect contributors when the appointee receives donations for a political campaign.
But politicians who were directly elected to their positions rather than appointed were exempt from that ban. Senate Bill 1439, which I authored, closed that loophole. The bill is simple. It says that local elected officials can’t vote on matters that have a direct financial effect on interests that have contributed $250 or more to the official’s campaign in the previous year. It also blocked local officials from accepting such a contribution for a year after the vote.
The new law will apply to votes on real estate developments, trash hauling contracts and other matters where there is a direct link between an official’s vote and the financial interests of the donor. The need for the bill was made clear by recent cases around the state. In 2016, a Los Angeles developer contributed $50,000 to a campaign committee supporting a city councilmember just two months before a scheduled vote on the developer’s project.
In 2018 and 2020, nearly a third of about $125,000 donated to Huntington Park city council members came from eight companies and their executives who had contracts pending with the city, according to an investigation by KCET. While it rarely makes the headlines, it is common knowledge that local officials solicit contributions from private interests who have matters pending at the city council or county board of supervisors. That kind of strong-arming is not a crime unless the public official links their action to the recipient of a contribution.
But preventing the public official from voting when they receive such a contribution would reduce the incentive for that kind of corrosive behavior. Although the bill passed without an opposing vote in either the Senate or the Assembly, special interests and local officials sued to try to block the law’s implementation. Their arguments were disingenuous, and a Sacramento Superior Court judge agreed last week, rejecting the lawsuit and upholding SB 1439. Their claim that the law violated the free speech of donors ignored that the law applies to elected officials, not contributors.
Donors are still free to support whoever they want. Elected officials are simply not allowed to vote on matters that directly benefit those who contribute to their campaigns. The argument that the law is flawed because it does not apply to spending by independent campaigns on behalf of elected officials is also misleading. Those making that case know full well that the Supreme Court has ruled that such spending is protected by the First Amendment and couldn’t be included in SB 1439.
Finally, the same interests complaining about SB 1439 violating their right to make contributions are questioning why it doesn’t also apply to state officials. Although the lion’s share of state decisions apply to the general public, not specific interests, I agree that the same rules should apply to state officials in the few cases where it is relevant.
I intend to pursue that reform as a follow-up to SB 1439. We need to preserve SB 1439 – and expand it – so we can ensure that our government officials are making decisions for the public interest, not the special interests.
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