- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 14, 2018

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill to let legislative leaders raise and spend more money to help their preferred candidates, despite opposition from open-government groups.

The bill would let leaders in the Legislature operate fundraising committees governed like political party committees at the state and county level. Such committees have higher contribution limits than regular campaigns and can give unlimited amounts to help their chosen state candidates.

Senators on the Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee voted 3-2 to advance the bill, AB84.

Lawmakers supporting the proposal argue it would help them combat the influence of independent expenditure committees, which can spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates as long as they don’t coordinate with them. Those committees are not subject to contribution limits or as strict disclosure requirements.

The bill’s author, Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Mullin of South San Francisco, says the bill would increase transparency by requiring more frequent financial disclosures by party and legislative leadership committees.

But open-government groups that aim to reduce the influence of money in politics and traditionally support transparency measures argue the bill would spur more pay-to-play politics at the Capitol and increase the power of wealthy special interests. The California Democratic Party and Republican candidate for governor John Cox also oppose the bill.

The higher contribution limits already apply to state parties, and the California Democratic Party argued that leadership committees shouldn’t get the same privileges because their process for choosing which candidates to support isn’t as democratic. Their argument drove much of the debate during Tuesday’s hearing.

The Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Assembly and Senate all elect their own leadership from among lawmakers serving in those houses, who are popularly elected. Those legislative leaders would run the fundraising committees created by AB84.

The party committees support candidates who are endorsed by state or local branches of the party.

“Yes, these folks are elected by their delegates,” Mullin said, referring to the party-endorsed candidates. “We are elected by the public.”

The leadership committees would be able to collect up to $36,500 per year from an individual donor to support candidates, and unlimited sums of money beyond that to run independent expenditure campaigns. In contrast, lawmakers now can collect just $4,400 per election from individual donors and $8,800 from small contributor committees, such as those controlled by unions.

Large donations to committees controlled by lawmakers, who craft policy, have greater potential to influence than donations to political parties, said Nicolas Heidorn of Common Cause, a group that advocates open government. He also raised concern about rushing the bill through the Legislature on a tight deadline right before the midterm elections.

“We need at this point to be strengthening and not loosening our campaign finance laws,” he said.

Some of the senators also raised concerns about the short timeframe of the proposal, which was posted publicly in July and would need to pass before the end of August when lawmakers leave town for the year.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys and Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino said they supported advancing the bill out of committee so lawmakers can continue to debate it. Both Democrats indicated they might not support it on the Senate floor without changes to make it more amenable to the open government groups that oppose it.

The bill now moves to the Senate Appropriations committee, where it will have to pass before advancing to the Senate floor. It would require two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature before it can head to the governor for final approval.

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