Legislation barring gifts targeted by opponents’ misinformation

A recent commentary by Don Fields (“The Tyranny of Good Intentions,” Capitol Weekly, April 10) dismissed my efforts at gift reform.  Although it is popular for the press and the public to embrace a cynical view of the Legislature, it is worth noting that the bill passed out of Assembly Elections committee 5-0. There is a growing sense that this body may be ready to tackle a whole suite of reforms: redistricting reform, political reform, budget reform and campaign finance reform.

 The bill criticized in Field’s commentary closes a glaring loophole in the Political Reform Act by applying the same gift limit on the employer of a lobbyist that currently applies to a lobbyist.  

This loophole has allowed legislators to benefit from gifts of tickets to rock concerts, sporting events, and amusement parks, along with payments for spa treatments, lavish dinners, and green fees.  The very same gifts, if given by the lobbyist, would be illegal.  However, they become perfectly legal if the employer of the lobbyist makes the gift, which is ironic since the employer of the lobbyist is the one who has the financial interest before the legislator.  In many cases the lobbyist is present at the event where the gift is given which further makes a mockery of intent of the Political Reform Act.

 The Fields article made some important misstatement of fact regarding what the bill would prohibit.  This response seeks to correct the record and address other misimpressions that have arisen independent of that commentary.  

Fields states that the bill would, “outlaw the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s legislative luncheon.  The Lung Association would be prohibited from offering legislators food during its conferences.”  In fact: the bill includes explicit language that mirrors federal regulations that govern gifts to congresspersons on such matters and allows acceptance of a complimentary ticket to such an event as long as “the event is principally comprised of members of the public which may include individuals from a given industry or profession, or a group of individuals interested in a particular issue.”

 Later, Fields states that “Common Cause would have to stop inviting legislators to fundraising dinners.”  Participation in someone else’s fundraising event is not treated as a reportable gift under FPPC Regulation 18946.4.  In-kind contributions to one’s own fundraising event would still be treated as a campaign contribution subject to Proposition 34 limits, not gift limits.  

Others have professed consternation that the tried-and-true Sacramento reception would be prohibited under AB 2795.  The bill explicitly allows such receptions but on a more modest scale, again mirroring federal limits which state that “a lobbyist employer may provide food or refreshments of a nominal value ($50) offered other than as part of a meal.”

 Though the subject of much debate, AB 2795 does not affect educational trips paid for by non-profits.

 It is true that legislators would need to pay their own way for dinner with an employer of a lobbyist, which is currently the case when dining with a lobbyist.  But I hasten to point out that legislators receive a generous salary of over $116,000 per year with a taxpayer provided per-diem intended for such expenses of about $35,000.  The per-diem should be more than sufficient to handle the occasional dinner, even at Sacramento’s finest dining establishments.

 Fields goes on to argue that the public confidence problem would be solved by simply requiring more disclosure.  California already has exceedingly tough disclosure laws, which are the basis for most of the media articles condemning the practice of legislators accepting gifts from concerns with business before the legislature.  

 As in medicine, law, and finance, the bad actions of only a few practitioners can badly damage the reputation of the entire field.  Those professions do much more than require disclosure of conflicts of interest, they ensure that the most egregious instances are strictly prohibited.  They do so because their ability to serve the public is compromised when the bad actions of a few hurt the many. So too the legislature must go beyond the “disclosure only” solution and appreciate that we need the public’s trust if we are to lead on the difficult issues of global warming, health care, and budget reform.

 Cynics argue that this body will never reform itself, whether those reforms deal with redistricting, political reform, campaign finance, or gifts.  I believe this very modest bill is a good first step toward demonstrating to the public that the cynics may be wrong.

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