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February 19, 2014
Viewpoints: Tunnel vision and outrageous excesses in the Capitol culture

ha_schnur7656.JPG(Feb. 19 - By Dan Schnur, Special to The Bee)

The California Fair Political Practices Commission, on which I once served as chairman, today will impose a historically large fine against Kevin Sloat, with whom I used to work in the Governor's Office. No conflicted feelings here: Kevin broke the rules and he will pay a very significant penalty. Looking at Sacramento through the narrowest of lenses, that's the way the process is supposed to work.

But looking at state government through only a narrow lens invariably leads to tunnel vision. In this case, that tunnel vision allows virtually the entire political community to ignore the larger and more outrageous excesses of a culture that sees nothing wrong with legislators drinking fine wines and smoking expensive cigars with the special interests whose bills they'll be voting on the following morning.

Had Sloat served slightly less costly refreshments to his guests, he would have been operating entirely within existing regulations. But the question should not be how to tinker with the accounting rules that ensnared this one particular practitioner.

We must instead ask how the state's political environment has become so polluted that all of the more than three dozen legislators - almost one-third of the body's membership - who attended these parties believed it was perfectly acceptable to grant access to special interests in exchange for campaign contributions within hours of casting key votes on bills supported by those donors.

Raising money immediately before and after legislative activity has become a way of life for both Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature.

Daily ritual for lawmakers

There is now a daily ritual in the neighborhood surrounding the state Capitol: Legislators rush from the floor of the Assembly or Senate across the street to any number of downtown watering holes, scoop up a stack of contributions from special interests and return to vote on the bills backed by those same interests before the ink on their checks has dried.

Repeat that same drill three times a day while the Legislature is in session and the result is a relay race of fundraising breakfasts, lunches and dinners, interrupted only by sprints back to the Capitol to justify those campaign checks through corresponding legislative action and acquiescence.

In order to weaken the link between campaign fundraising and government decision-making, last year I proposed an absolute ban on fundraising at any time the Legislature is in session.

The ban, which would apply to both legislators and statewide officeholders, would extend 72 hours past the end of session to prevent either chamber from gaveling themselves in or out for a few hours or over a long weekend.

Both the Senate and Assembly would be required to conclude their respective sessions before fundraising would be permitted. (More details on the proposal can be found at www.4schnur.com.)

The common thread between these parties was not the vintage of wine or the brand of cigar. Rather, it was the inappropriately short time span between the time of the fundraisers and the legislative action on bills whose supporters populated these events. No fewer than 23 of the 26 fundraisers in question took place while the Legislature was in session or immediately after its adjournment, therefore ensuring that an individual politician could be influenced by a sizable contribution.

Questionable timing

For those who believe that an in-session ban would have no impact, it may be worth asking why almost all of Sloat's parties took place during session or its immediate aftermath. One of the only three out-of-session events was a fundraiser not for legislators but for Gov. Jerry Brown, days after he concluded signing and vetoing bills in the fall of 2010 and at the height of the campaign to pass his ballot initiative, Proposition 30, a few weeks later.

The reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would not have nearly the same visceral or emotional impact as that same check written the night before or the morning of that same vote.

The purchased access that allows the supporters of a particular bill to make their case to a legislator in the hours before that vote while the opposition is prevented from having the same opportunity can fundamentally skew the legislator's decision-making process.

Why did almost 90 percent of these fundraisers take place during legislative session?

Because the host knew, just like his colleagues and competitors, that the time to catch legislators' attention is right before or after an important vote. And that the best way to catch their attention is with a glass of wine, an expensive cigar and a big, fat check.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is a candidate for California secretary of state.