Fifteen states, including Texas and Florida, have put rules on the books banning political contributions while their state legislatures are in session. Now, Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, is looking to add California’s name to the list.
“I have put together a proposal that would ban all legislative fundraising and all fundraising for statewide officeholders at any time that the Legislature is in session,” said Schnur, a former chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Currently, California bans contributions from lobbyists during the legislative session, but does not ban other fundraising. Though Schnur said this rule is well meaning, it does not prevent other contributors from writing a check during the session.
“Under the current system, the majority of legislators can attend fundraisers at breakfast, lunch and dinner every day they are in Sacramento,” he said.
Schnur’s proposal would limit all contributions during the legislative session, a regulation Schnur believes is necessary to “weaken the link between political giving and government activity.”
“Like it or not, fundraising is a legitimate political activity,” Schnur said. “But legislating is a legitimate political activity too. And they shouldn’t be done simultaneously.”
Schnur said the ban could produce several positive outcomes, such as increasing bipartisanship, reducing the appearance of impropriety and curbing the purchase of access during key votes.
“A check that’s written six months before a legislative vote is not going to offer nearly as strong a quid pro quo as that same check written 15 minutes before that same vote,” he said.
California legislative sessions typically run from early January to the end of August, with spring and summer breaks and two short sessions in September and December. But because legislative sessions can conceivably be any length, Schnur said the proposed ban would stay in effect for 72 hours after the legislative session ended.
“That way they can’t go out of session at 4 o’clock, hold a fundraising dinner and come back in at 7 [p.m.],” Schnur said. “Or what they do in Illinois — and this is especially appalling — Monday is fundraising day in Springfield and then Tuesday through Friday they legislate.”
The ban might also result in more contributions to politicians on the basis of ideology and philosophy, rather than to influence a particular bill, according to Schnur.
For Schnur, tackling campaign fundraising is the next logical step in reforming the state’s political system. He said adding a ban would strengthen two recent political reforms — the top-two primary and redistricting reform — by allowing for more bipartisanship to take place in Sacramento.
“They combine to create an environment where those legislators who are so inclined will have a safe space from which to work with members of the other party,” Schnur said.
A longtime Republican consultant, Schnur changed his party identification from Republican to “decline to state” in March 2011 to allow him to better campaign for political reform.
“This was not a matter of repudiating either political party, it was simply a matter of recognizing that in order to be an effective and credible reform advocate, it couldn’t be done from either major party,” said Schnur, who believes the ban would affect both parties equally.
Schnur plans to move forward with the ban by first reaching out to legislators, a group that Schnur recognizes might be reluctant to throw its weight behind such a proposal.
“As is the case with any political reform, by definition, anyone who has succeeded under the current rules is probably not going to be all that excited about seeing them changed,” he said.
Schnur also plans to reach out to those seeking statewide office and encouraging them to include the ban in their platforms. If all else fails, Schnur said a ballot initiative would be an option.
Though there has yet to be polling to measure public opinion on the proposal, Schnur said he believes voters will be on his side.
“While I’m not a soothsayer, I’d be willing to bet if you asked voters if they thought their elected representatives should have to forgo fundraising until their legislative responsibilities are completed each year, you’d probably get a pretty strong ‘yes’ vote,” he said.
Schnur is also currently in the process of working to organize a series of conferences on political reform, including the fundraising ban proposal, at colleges throughout the state.