California’s landmark campaign finance law needs an update
California is a national leader in campaign finance, lobbying and governmental ethics with some of the nation’s toughest laws. To maintain the highest ethical standards, the Fair Political Practices Commission responds to growing trends and tactics.
We recently adopted measures to improve disclosure of lobbying activities, to toughen rules to prevent illegal coordination with candidates on independent expenditures and to close loopholes on “dark money” contributions. But there is more we can and must do to reform the law in this area.
The cornerstone of California’s campaign finance and ethics law is the Political Reform Act. Voters wisely approved this measure 41 years ago, with our current governor among its champions. It was justly hailed as landmark political reform. But that was four decades ago. Voter initiatives and the Legislature have made significant changes to the act over the years. The unintended consequence is a law that is overly complex, cumbersome and sometimes contradictory. When confronted with allegations of misconduct, public officials point to the law’s complexity to justify their noncompliance, undermining our strong rules.
At the same time, potential candidates in smaller races are discouraged from
running when faced with either navigating the intricate rules alone or hiring a professional treasurer. The public’s trust in the political system and their public officials continues to erode.
It is time to change the narrative.
The commission has embarked on a comprehensive review and revision of the act to clarify and incorporate decades of amendments. The overarching goal is to streamline and simplify the act without weakening disclosure or sacrificing accountability.
Our project includes redrafting the act using plain English, reorganizing sections by subject, integrating long-standing regulations and incorporating significant court decisions. This is a weighty endeavor that the commission, which will discuss it Feb. 18, cannot do alone.
We have partnered with two premier academic institutions, the California Constitution Center at UC Berkeley School of Law and the UC Davis School of Law, to oversee preliminary drafting by law students. We also are fortunate to have California Forward help direct the project. And throughout the process we will be seeking input from the public, politicians, lobbyists and others we oversee. Our goal is to present a final proposal to the Legislature next year.
An updated Political Reform Act will encourage participation in the political process by reducing the complexity and costs of seeking office. It will improve compliance and eliminate the excuse of the law being too complicated. It will increase public understanding and transparency to promote trust in the system. And it will strengthen accountability of public officials and advance our enforcement efforts. I fully appreciate this project is not the sensational political story that typically grabs headlines. But it can serve as a model for other states and keep California at the forefront of campaign finance and governmental ethics. And once the project is complete, it will be easier to understand where additional work is needed to promote transparency, encourage compliance and bolster enforcement for the next generation of political reform.