Our View: Lots of talk of restricting fund raising

April 1, 2013 

Former Fair Political Practices Commission Chairman Dan Schnur wanted to start a "conversation" about fund raising at the state capital.

He certainly succeeded. As The Sacramento Bee reported last week, Schnur is proposing to ban fund raising by state officeholders while the Legislature is in session. "Fund raising is a legitimate political activity. Legislating is a legitimate political activity. But you can't do both of those things at the same time," Schnur told The Sacramento Bee.

In essence, the Legislature would need to be out of session for at least 72 hours before legislators and other elected state officials could raise funds. He said he wants legislators to adopt the idea. Failing that -- and they almost certainly would not agree to it -- Schnur is contemplating trying to raise money for an initiative in 2014.

Capitol insiders were quick to level criticism of Schnur's concept. First, he hasn't put the idea in the form of a bill, so details are sketchy. Fair enough.

Another pitfall is that restrictions on fund raising by incumbents could boost the chances of wealthy challengers. That's always an issue. But as Meg Whitman can attest, money doesn't always win.

A third critique -- and a troubling one -- is that the restriction would further crimp the power of politicians to control their own campaign messages, and add to the already considerable power of independent expenditure committees that operate separately from candidates.

Given a long line of cases by the courts defining spending money as a First Amendment right, independent expenditure committees, with their unlimited fund raising and spending, are here to stay.

We might prefer some other solutions to a fund-raising blackout period, chief among them immediate disclosure year-round and extended to so-called social welfare organizations.

The FPPC also ought to have enhanced enforcement authority. Law enforcement, including district attorneys, should take it upon themselves to be more aggressive in their pursuit of fund-raising abuses.

Political fund raising will remain a reality, so long as voters remain skeptical of public financing. But Schnur, a former Republican operative who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, raises an issue worthy of debate.

As any lobbyist can attest, fund raising has become ever more brazen. It's no coincidence that some committee chairs schedule fund-raisers around the time their committees meet to decide important bills. And it's certainly no accident that legislators become particularly aggressive during the closing days of casting votes on interests' legislation.

Legislators should show self-restraint by adopting a policy by which they don't raise money in the final month of a legislative session. Barring that, they might soon face a more far-reaching initiative, one that might seriously cramp their style.

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