California Focus: Lawmakers choose money over trust

By by Thomas D. Elias June 25, 2014 03:55 pm

There was a clear message when the state Senate in early June first amended and then utterly rejected a ban on all contributions to legislators during the last 100 days of each lawmaking session.

That message: “We would rather have money than trust.”

The Senate action came just over two months after it refused to expel three senators who had been either indicted or convicted for perjury or selling their votes and services. Instead, the senators were suspended, leaving millions of citizens with no representation and no hope of getting any very soon.

The Senate’s move, strikingly, also came on the very same day that two members of the state Assembly paid fines for taking illegally high contributions.

Is it any wonder that a springtime national poll showed California among just seven states where the majority of citizens don’t trust either state or local government to act honestly?

Had the Senate passed the last-100-day contribution ban, it would have been a start toward restoring trust, as far from perfection as such a short-term ban would nevertheless be. For there can never be a ban or a limit on promises lobbyists might make during any time span about future contributions or favors.

But the Senate wasn’t willing even to go that far. Instead, it adopted a one-year, one-month resolution forbidding its members from soliciting or accepting contributions from lobbyists and their clients from Aug. 1 until the legislative session’s scheduled end on Aug. 31. The resolution also applied during this summer’s budget negotiations, but since it passed just days before a budget agreement was reached, the add-on didn’t mean much.

Senators also updated their Standards of Conduct to require that they conduct themselves “so as to justify the high trust” voters have given them.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the Senate’s action – besides the fact it doesn’t apply to any Assembly members and thus leaves out two-thirds of all legislators – is the fact it was merely a resolution, not a law.

 So it’s not binding beyond this year. Next year, with the heat presumably off from the indictments and convictions of Democratic Sens. Rod Wright, Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, who knows whether senators will bother to renew it? That makes the Senate’s action potentially a one-year wonder that will accomplish little or nothing.

For if it’s possible for lobbyists to make promises during a 100-day period, it’s even easier for them to do that during a mere month-long hiatus, which renders the Senate resolution something even flimsier than a fig leaf.

This didn’t stop big talk from key senators. Said the Senate’s about-to-become president, Democrat Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles, the rule intends to “ensure that members of the Senate are focused exclusively on legislative business at these crucial times in the legislative calendar.” Yeah, right. These good folks are certain to forget about fundraising just because they can’t actually accept check for a few days.

Back in early spring, some of Sacramento’s most prolific fundraisers said Padilla’s proposed 100-day ban would accomplish little. 

“It’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Dan Weitzman, who gathers funds for Democrats. 

What passed is even weaker.

All of which means the Senate resolution is nothing more than a public relations ploy, intended to convince voters the senators really are trustworthy. But even a cursory look at what they actually did makes it clear many are not.

 

Reach Thomas D. Elias, a longtime California political reporter, at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it