With the California Senate beset by ethics scandals that have led to the departure of three senators and an in-house law enforcement officer, the chamber's Rules Committee moved on Wednesday to enact new fundraising restrictions and open a channel for whistleblowers.
The change "will not fix all of the challenges and the problems that have risen to public attention, but will have a demonstrable, positive effect on the culture of the Senate," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
Members passed the policies on a unanimous 4-0 vote. One of the two Republicans who sits on the panel, Sen. Steve Knight of Palmdale, was not present.
One of the proposals would allow staff members to report potential violations to a new ethics ombudsman or an anonymous tip line. The formal rule embraces a proposal first floated by Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, creating what Steinberg called a useful venue for staffers who do not want to submit a formal allegation or are worried about reprisals for speaking up. Per the rule, staffers submitting complaints would be protected whistleblowers.
"Many instances of questionable conduct, questionable ethics, could be dealt with appropriately and effectively and prevent a continuation of behavior that could inevitably lead to formal action or an indictment," Steinberg said.
A second rule would have broader fundraising implications. Campaign finance reform advocates have called repeatedly for restrictions on fundraising, noting that end-of-session circumstances - legislators weighing decisive votes on a wide range of bills - are ripe for special interest donors to influence votes.
Noting that fundraising is an indispensable part of the political process, Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, pushed the rule to prohibit fundraising during the final month of the legislative session.
"They are frankly the busiest times of the year, when the Senate is making the most critical public policy decisions," de León said. "It's time, I believe, that we should reserve our full, undivided attention to the peoples' business."
The third rule greenlighted by Rules Committee members would tighten the Senate's code of conduct to discourage lawmakers attending fundraising events from speaking with donors about specific bills or budget line items.
"We want to reinforce that must be the culture. You separate your official business from your necessary and appropriate political and fundraising activities," Steinberg said.
From here, the proposed changes go to a full vote on the Senate floor. A simple majority would implement them.
Assembly leadership has not proposed comparable changes to the Senate's rules. Newly installed Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, pointed on Wednesday to a handful of ethics-related bills advancing through the Legislature and criticized a deluge of independent campaign spending.
But Atkins also questioned whether legislation could have prevented the alleged bribe-taking and weapons trafficking for which two former state senators faced federal charges.
"Would any of those measures have kept from happening some of the activities that have caused these pieces of legislation to come forward?" Atkins asked. "That in and of itself is a real issue and a real problem."
Steinberg was a little more optimistic. He acknowledged that the rules would not diminish the amount of money in politics. But he called them a start.
"What we put in place today, will it help avoid a bad situation five to ten years from now? We don't know the answer," Steinberg said. "But I think we certainly improve the chances."
PHOTO: Three of the senators who voted for the new rules unveil ethics bills in Sacramento Thursday March 6, 2014. From left to right: senators Ricardo Lara, Kevin de León and Darrell Steinberg. The Sacramento Bee/Renée C. Byer.