The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Commentary: Beware of Reforms Wrapped As Sheep's Clothing

In 2000, Californians weary of the ever-rising cost of campaigns and perceived influence of big money passed Proposition 34 which seemed to be a constitutional answer to the problem of campaign spending limits. It did several notable things--first, it limited the size of contributions from groups and individuals to candidates--something that the courts had allowed already at the federal level. Individuals are limited to contributions in the range of $3,000 for the legislature, $5,000 for the constitutional offices, and $21,000 for governor.

But the big reform is that it set set "voluntary" limits for campaign spending. It was voluntary in that in order to have a ballot statement in the sample ballot, you had to accept the limits. But you could not accept the limits and forgo having a ballot statement. It seems that probably two-thirds or more have accepted these limits in the three subsequent elections. It also have cost of living increases so that the number unlike federal limitations is constantly adjusted for inflation. So for a State Assembly Primary the initial number was $425,000 in total spending, now it is about $483,000.

Here were the original limits:






Other Statewide












The law is well written enough that it will be tough to find loopholes in the language except for one very big exemption. There is no limit to the amount individuals can donate to political parties and there is no limit as to how much political parties can spend at the behest of candidates. "A campaign expenditure made by a political party on behalf of a candidate is not attributed to these spending limits." Moreover, "Prop. 34 states that it is designed to strengthen the role of political parties in financing political campaigns. " (See: FPPC).

The result of this loophole is twofold. It is possible that in contested primaries, the state party can intercede on behalf of one candidate over another. This will be of particular interest to watch as Yolo County will have two possible contested legislature primaries--The Assembly where it is Mayor of West Sacramento Christopher Cabaldon against Yolo County Supervisor Mariko Yamada and in the State Senate where it is Assemblywoman Lois Wolk against John Garamendi.

Second, in targeted general elections, the state parties can spend what they want, which means essentially that spending and influence of money will remain the same but the state parties will be more important since they control the unlimited money.

We now see a similar type of reform effort in the term limits reform--"The Term Limits and Legislative Reform." As I have expressed in the past, term limits in my opinion has not been a good thing for California. UC Berkeley researcher Bruce Cain, one of the preeminent scholars on California Politics recently wrote in a Sacramento Bee Op-ed:
"But some aspects of term limits have not been beneficial. A recent comparative term limits study sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures discovered that term limits have weakened legislative expertise and leadership in many states.

This is particularly evident in California, where members rarely serve long enough on committees to learn the complexities of the relevant subject matter, and where the Assembly chairs are frequently first-term members.

This has several bad consequences, including a significant decline in legislative oversight -- the sometimes tedious task of scrutinizing how agencies spend money. Oversight requires knowledge of what agencies have promised in the past and detailed questions about their current operations. The best time to hold agencies' feet to the fire is during the budget process, but increasingly members have opted out of using budget hearings for that purpose. There is just not enough time to develop the knowledge to match the agencies' expertise. The public wants to be assured that public money is well spent, but without the proper checks and balances, bureaucrats face less scrutiny than ever before.

A proliferation of silly bills in the Legislature is testimony to the dual imperative of the term-limited politician: Get something out as quickly as possible so you can set yourself up to run for another office, and work on bite-size problems rather than tough, long-term problems since that is all you have time for. But some of our problems require a long-term perspective: improving schools and fixing the prison system."

Professor Cain in the end supports this reform as a means for gaining expertise in the legislative leadership. While I respect Cain's expertise and body of work, I disagree with his final conclusion here. I am just not certain in the long run it really accomplishes those goals. I say this as a virulent critic of all term limits. In my opinion we have a perfectly good term limits law already on the books, they are called elections.

What the law does is instead of limiting members to three two-year terms in the Assembly and two four-year terms in the Senate, it limits the total time in the legislature to twelve years, regardless of office. So you can foresee some members spending twelve rather than six years in the Assembly and I think that will help the Assembly. But what happens to the State Senate? That is less clear, it is not generally an entry-level office, so you would assume most members will still serve in the Assembly first in order to get elected to the Senate, that will mean they can only serve two terms in the Senate, which is what we have today. In the end, we are not really increasing expertise and leadership ability with this reform.

A more realistic approach would be to expand the amount of terms in each branch slightly. Would the voters go for that? Hard to know. The voters may go for this, although it would be fairly easy to as Cain suggests, "argue against changes in term limits by suggesting that sitting members will benefit: It plays to the public's populist suspicion that elected officials are out for themselves."

In the end, the I see this as a ploy by the current leadership to maintain their leadership positions that would expire this year. So what you have is an early Presidential primary in February with this proposition on the ballot, that would given them time if the measure passes to run in June for their old seats. I see this as a cynical ploy for the leadership to maintain power rather than a serious effort for reform.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting