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March 26, 2013
Dan Morain: Fundraising, legislative sessions don't mix

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(March 26) Want to spend a lovely weekend at your "own private ocean front" gazing at the sunset near Point Reyes?

How about fly-fishing at Eagle Canyon Trophy Trout Lakes? Or maybe you'd prefer watching the Clippers play the Pacers at Staples Center, or getting in a round of golf at Escena Golf Club in Palm Springs?

There is, of course, a catch. You'd have to donate $1,000 to $6,800, and spend time with Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, Board of Equalization member George Runner, Assemblyman Jeff Gorell or Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez.

Into the ever-more-aggressive business of raising campaign money steps Dan Schnur, former operative-turned-reformer-turned-academic, with a brainstorm intended to curtail the practice, or at least one aspect of it.

Schnur's concept: bar legislators and other state officeholders from raising money while the Legislature is in session. He hopes statewide candidates will embrace the idea, and that legislators will agree to some form of restriction on their own.

If that doesn't happen - and it won't - he is contemplating raising money on his own for an initiative intended for the 2014 ballot.

There's much to criticize about Schnur's proposal. In reality, fundraising would continue but in other ways. Legislators probably would cede more fundraising duties to political parties, while interest groups would rely even more on increasingly dominant independent campaign committees. But something needs to change.

Legislators have been in session for three months this year and have done little work of any significance, other than raise money and give special access to their donors. They held no fewer than 30 fundraisers between Feb. 26 and March 20. Sen. Ted Gaines, D-Roseville, held two, one of which was a day skiing at Squaw Valley.

The big rush comes in the final weeks of the session in the fall, when legislators vote on hundreds of bills, and interrupt legislative sessions to scurry across L Street to Chops, Chicory and other fundraising venues to pick up checks.

Incumbents and candidates raised no less than $6 million in the last two weeks of the legislative session last year - all of it as legislators decided the fate of legislation that directly affected their contributors.

If it's not felonious activity, it ought to be. If the FBI isn't paying attention, its agents should be, because the California Department of Justice and Sacramento County district attorney don't seem to care.

On behalf of their clients, some lobbyists all but set up shop on the plaza across from the Capitol where they can more efficiently shake legislators' hands and pass them envelopes.

A few lobbyists advise their clients to forgo end-of-session donations, and a few donors have gotten the message. Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, for one, took a hiatus from giving during the summer, and resumed giving late in September, after legislators had left Sacramento for the year.

"I don't want my clients to be in a story that appears at the end of the session," said lobbyist-attorney Gene Erbin, whose firm, Nielsen Merksamer, perennially is one of the top-billing lobby shops in Sacramento. "Fundraising should not drive the institution's agenda."

Schnur, who teaches at the University of Southern California, served as Fair Political Practices Commission chairman at the end of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration and concluded that fundraising had become even worse than he remembered from his days as Gov. Pete Wilson's communications director.

His idea would present lawmakers with a choice: legislate or raise money, but don't do both at the same time.

Perhaps the concept would prompt legislators to limit the time they're in session. That wouldn't bother Schnur, who previously campaigned to keep legislative term limits in place, a stand he since has softened.

"I wouldn't say that is my goal here," Schnur said. "I'm not sure it's necessary for them to spend as much time in Sacramento as they do."

No campaign finance restriction will end money in politics. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that giving money is a First Amendment right. At most, regulations can curb direct donations to candidates, but money flows elsewhere, primarily to campaigns that are independent of candidates.

Schnur's idea won't get far in the Legislature, but it should - if not by legislation, then by policy. Lawmakers ought to show self-restraint by not scheduling fundraisers during the hours and days shortly before and after their committees vote on bills. They especially should stop raising money in the final weeks of legislative sessions.

The hors d'oeuvres aren't all that good, anyway. Donors don't need invitations from George Runner and Anthony Rendon to go fly-fishing in the Sierra, or spend the day "sunset watching and oyster tasting at the boat shacks" over in Marshall.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.

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