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PD Editorial: The business of Sacramento: Raising money

California legislators introduced more than 2,200 bills this year.

We're not aware of anyone tallying the fundraisers scheduled by those same legislators in and around the committee hearings and floor sessions where the fate of all those bills gets decided.

Keeping track of the breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions each day in Sacramento may be impossible. Donors who are counting their calories need not worry that they're missing out. They can play golf, enjoy a spa day, attend a ball game, even accompany a senator or Assembly member on a trip to Las Vegas.

The big gamble for anyone with a stake in a legislative decision is skipping all these fundraisers. To do so is to bet the price of admission that someone with an opposing interest won't be there chatting with a legislator about to cast a decisive vote on one of those 2,200 bills.

It's all perfectly legal as long as votes aren't exchanged for money. It's also a tawdry way to make public policy, even if there's nothing on the menu besides a glass of wine, a slice of cheese and the appearance of corruption.

To combat that hint of wrongdoing — "honest graft" as the 19th century Tamany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt described it — a well-connected former political operative wants to prohibit state elected officials from raising campaign cash while the Legislature is in session.

"Under the current rules," Dan Schnur wrote for Flash Report, a politics website, "enterprising legislators can schedule a fundraising reception within a five-minute walk from the floor of the state Assembly or Senate, rush out to scoop up a stack of campaign contributions and be back at their desks before the ink on the checks has dried."

Schnur has observed the process from several perspectives. He is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Government and Politics at the University of Southern California. In the past, he worked for Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Republican Party. More recently, he was chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission. He's now considering another role: initiative sponsor.

As Schnur himself acknowledges, a fundraising blackout wouldn't eliminate the need for politicians to raise money or reduce the cost of campaigns. It wouldn't keep stakeholders from trying to influence elected officials. Critics say it would benefit wealthy candidates who don't need to raise as much money and magnify the already-considerable influence of independent expenditure committees in state elections.

Those are all legitimate concerns, but they should be weighed against the potential benefits, the biggest of which is time. If legislators devote less time to raising money, they will have time for their primary responsibility. As it is now, many bills get only a brief and cursory review before becoming law.


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