Schnur: How to Clean Up Sacramento

Schnur: How to Clean Up Sacramento

What do you do when a crime wave hits the State Capitol?

What do you do when three California State Senators are arrested, indicted or convicted of felony offenses in the first three months of the year?

If you are State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the answer is obvious. First, give the three legislative miscreants a paid vacation designed to last through the rest of their time in office. Second, set aside one day each year as “Ethics Day”, in which State Senators and staff are briefed on how to locate their moral compasses for a 24-hour time period before resuming their fundraising frenzy. Third, lend fleeting verbal support to a series of loophole-ridden, piecemeal and easily evaded “reforms” that collectively almost comprise one entire fig leaf. 

In short, react with all the manufactured outrage and umbrage that you can muster, then quietly go back to the quid-pro-quo culture of corruption that has poisoned state politics.

But Steinberg’s most untenable proposal received the least public and media attention: he called for your taxpayer dollars to be used to pay for political campaigns.

Using money out of our salaries to pay for political campaigns has been a favored hobbyhorse for career politicians for many years. Why go to the trouble of raising money from citizens who agree with your issue agenda and policy priorities when you can just have the state government subsidize the annoying television commercials and obnoxious mail brochures that you need to gain re-election?

Not surprisingly, California voters think differently. In 2006, approximately three-quarters of state voters rejected a ballot initiative on this topic. Most Californians would understandably rather see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on police officers,teachers and firefighters performing valuable public services, rather than on political consultants making nasty television commercials. 

Since then, neither Steinberg nor other legislative leaders have lifted a finger on the issue during their time in power.

Until this spring. It was only when public and media attention focus on the State Senate scandals became so intense that Steinberg and his colleagues were forced to begin to talk about the Capitol’s culture of corruption that he sought refuge in a call for public financing of campaigns. Fending off calls for his fellow Senators to be expelled from office and other more sweeping changes, the leading Democrat in the state legislature suggested that public financing was the most plausible way of preventing criminal behavior by his members.

Does Darrell Steinberg really think that asking taxpayers to shell out for campaign ads is the best way to clean up the Capitol? If so, he’s certainly been extremely quiet on the issue for a long time. More likely, it’s simply a convenient excuse for doing nothing meaningful at all to fix a broken political system.

Like many career politicians, he is cynically using the issue as an excuse not to pursue more achievable and useful reforms. Talking about public financing has become a hiding place of last resort for politicians who are desperate to convince voters that they want to fix a broken system, but who are secure in their knowledge that this particular change will never happen.

But what still remains is an essentially corrupt culture in the State Capitol where every breakfast, lunch and dinner is a fundraising opportunity for politicians in both parties. The spectacle of our elected representatives scurrying around Sacramento to an ongoing parade of fundraising events squeezed in between floor debates and committee hearings sends an unfortunate message to voters that public policy is only the second highest priority for their elected representatives.

The best way to prevent our politicians from selling access to wealthy special interests is much more simple and straightforward: we can weaken the link between political giving and government action by banning fundraising while the state legislature is in session. Fundraising is a necessary part of politics. But governing is too. And you shouldn’t be able do both at the same time. First things first.

Let’s make sure that our elected officials can concentrate on the job we elected them to do, without the constant distractions and obstacles that a never-ending chase for campaign cash forces on them. Banning fundraising while the legislature is in session won’t magically fix a broken system. But it can separate the acts of making laws from raising money. And that’s an important step in the right direction, certainly much better than career politicians using your hard-earned money to pay for their re-election campaigns.

Dan Schnur, the former Chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is a candidate for California Secretary of State.