A new California law aimed at curbing pay to play schemes at the local level across the state and Orange County takes effect this year – but questions are mounting on how effective it will be.
The law mandates a 12-month cooling off period on local elected officials from voting on items that could benefit campaign contributors who donated $250 or more.
It also calls for a 12-month blackout period on receiving donations from people who’ve had business voted on by local government bodies.
The new state law doesn’t apply to competitively bid contracts, or labor and employment contracts, according to the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Critics say the new law doesn’t go far enough, arguing real estate developers and other special interests can simply wait out the time restrictions – or bypass it all together by spending through political action committees.
Fullerton College political science professor and local government expert, Jodi Balma, said campaign contributors will either wait or donate to political action committees to avoid the law’s restrictions.
“If I give you the money in 2020 to get elected, you then use appointment power in 2021 to put my guy on the planning commission to approve a project that doesn’t come in front of you until late 2022 or 2023, then i just succeeded,” Balma said in a phone interview.
While State Sen. Steven Glazer, a chief author of the new law, said “it could very well be the most significant political reform in the last 50 years,” Bob Stern, chief co-author of California’s 1974 Political Reform Act, expressed doubt about its effectiveness.
“It will have a limited effect when contributors are not aware of the law and give more than $250 and then learn that their request cannot be approved by the person receiving teh contribution,” said Stern in an email.
Stern was the first general counsel to Califirna’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Former Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno said contributors are going to shift their spending.
“They’re just not going to give you $2,000, they’re going to put that $2,000 into a PAC (political action committee) instead – probably more. I think it’ll probably somewhat limit how much they’re donating, if at all,” Moreno said in a phone interview.
Stern echoed Moreno’s concerns, but also noted candidates will still need to fundraise for their campaigns.
Is A Rise in Local PACs on the Horizon?
Moreno, who spearheaded a failed effort to enact a similar campaign finance reform in Anaheim that would’ve applied political action committee spending, said the law could spark homegrown PACs in smaller cities that haven’t had them before.
“We’re going to see a Citizens United type of unintended consequences,” Moreno said. “You’re going to see at the local level a lot more PACs and other cities are going to feel what we’ve felt for years, which is the undue influence of PACs.”
Balma said often times, city councils and other local elected bodies are resistant to reforming their campaign finance laws – pointing to the most recent case of failed reform in Anaheim on the heels of an FBI corruption probe.
“If you ask the councils to police themselves, you often don’t get good governance. It is self service campaign finance rules,” Balma said. “Ideally, you don’t want the state to set these rules, but sometimes you have to.”
Stern also said the law could produce a rise in local PACs, adding the law “should apply to all PACs controlled by candidates. Not sure how it would apply to independent expenditure PACs except if the committee only took contributions from one contributor.”
During Anaheim’s public debate about campaign finance reform last year, some council members questioned if restrictions applied to independent expenditures were unconstitutional.
City Attorney Rob Fabela said while officials can’t limit what PACs do with their money and how much they spend, elected bodies are able to govern their actions – like a blackout period from voting on items that could benefit PAC contributors.
No other Orange County city has seen the level of political action committee spending like Anaheim has in recent years.
Just this past election, Disney pumped $1.3 million into its chief political spending vehicle, the Support Our Anaheim Resort PAC, which supported three council candidates – a similar spending seen in recent election cycles.
“My definite fear is that the donors will shift all their donations to PACs,” Moreno said. “We’ll see the growth of super PACs in Anaheim, I think. I’m hopeful the council will see that and get ahead of it early and urgently because elections come fast.”
Meanwhile, Balma said a one-year time period isn’t very long for city councils – especially when it comes to land use policies.
“A year is marginally nothing in city council times, why won’t you just wait until your second year? I appreciate the spirit of the law, but I think it has a loophole large enough you can drive a truck through,” Balma said. “I do think PACS are going to get through that loophole.”
“For a developer, you’re talking about massive lead time. There’s very few development issues where you need something voted on in a year.”
Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.