More than three decades after it went into effect, California’s campaign finance law needs to be updated and reworked, the state’s political watchdog told a newly convened advisory panel.
The Political Reform Act of 1974, spawned by the Nixon-era Watergate scandals, “is need of an overhaul,” said Dan Schnur, the chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission. “Our goal is to simplify and renew the Act.”
The first meeting of the Political Reform Act Task Force was held in Sacramento Monday at the University of Southern California’s Capitol Center. The panel, assembled by Schnur, will put together recommendations to tighten and improve the act, which deals with campaign cash, disclosure, ethics, gifts and the like.
Among those who addressed the group was Gov. Schwarzenegger, who spoke in general terms about his support for the commission, and took the opportunity to include a few comments about his proposals for state employee pension reform.
The eclectic panel of former lawmakers, lobbyists, educators and political reform veterans has been directed to compile a list of legislative recommendations on how campaign disclosure laws can be simplified and modernized. The findings of the task force will be geared towards advising the Legislature on drafting political reform bills.
Schnur, appointed chairman of the five-member FPPC by Schwarzenegger, is not part of the task force but played an active role in the meeting.
“The work isn’t glamorous,” Schnur warned.
But the improvements the panel develops could drastically affect the transparency of political campaigns. The group said it will encourage new ideas regarding political reform from both panel members and the public. The McPherson Commission, a past task force on political reform, also served as a basis for criticism and example.
The current rules of campaign disclosure are outlined by the Political Reform Act. But while 1974 was a good year, Schnur said, “times have changed.”
One of the main concerns facing the panel is the issue of electronic campaign finance filing, an issue that the authors of the Political Reform Act could not have anticipated.
According to the act, campaigns are required to disclose their financial resources to the Secretary of State’s office, where they are now posted online for voters to see. But since the act pre-dates popular use of the internet, old laws need updating in order to make the process of campaign disclosure easier for the individuals filling out the forms and more accessible for voters.
Local government reformers also wanted in on the action. Leeann Pelham, executive director of the L.A. City Ethics Commission, says more than a half-dozen California counties have made campaign disclosures available online for the public. She suggested that local government disclosure statements be as equally accessible as those of state government.
None of the task force members disagreed with the idea that the current laws are insufficient for the age of electronic filings, when ideally voters can have easy access to political transactions and contributors can have a foolproof system to abide by disclosure laws.
But political reform is a difficult task, the commission noted. The members approached the image of campaign disclosure as though it were a dark and capable monster too large for individual understanding or interpretation. The term “streamlining,” quickly became a buzz word.
The task force is slated to meet once a month until the end of the year, at which point Schnur’s appointment as chairman will end. He has no plans to serve another term.