Special interests could put more money directly into the hands of California legislative leaders, giving them greater influence over campaigns, under a bill unveiled last week as lawmakers left Sacramento for summer recess.
Legislators also added provisions to the bill to require political parties to file more frequent and timely campaign finance reports with the state. They describe Assembly Bill 84 as a measure that increases transparency.
"The real strength of the bill is that we added a disclosure that doesn’t exist right now," said Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, a South San Francisco Democrat who introduced the bill. "I do think it does strengthen leadership's hand in getting good people elected and keeping them elected."
In a typical election year, political parties are only required to file six financial disclosures, and 24-hour reports on contributions of $1,000 or more in the three months leading up to an election. AB 84 would require political parties to file monthly reports as well.
Political observers and advocates for campaign finance reform raised immediate concerns about the bill.
"Apparently there is more transparency, but the question is in exchange for what?" said Emelyn Rodriguez, a political and election law attorney and former senior counsel at the California Fair Political Practices Commission. "It looks like the exchange could be raising and spending larger or unlimited amounts from more sources and possibly including lobbyist and lobbying entities."
The proposal would allow both Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly to open separate and new "legislative caucus committees." The groups would be considered political party committees, which have more generous financial contribution limits than legislative candidates.
Under rules applied to the 2018 election cycle, candidates for the Senate and Assembly are limited to receiving $4,400 per election from individuals, businesses and campaign finance committees. Lawmakers are also barred from giving each other more than $4,400 per election. Political parties, on the other hand, can give candidates as much money as they want.
These new legislative caucus committees would be treated like political parties, which are capped at accepting $36,500 in contributions from each outside source per calendar year. The limit would only apply to contributions that the caucus committees spend on state candidates. There's no limit to how much money an outside source could give the committees for other expenses.
The new law essentially allows corporate donors to give $73,000 more to each party - $36,500 to Senate Democrats and $36,500 to Assembly Democrats, for example - to fund candidate campaigns per year, said Emily Rusch, the executive director of California Public Interest Research Group.
"Rules that allow these really large contributions end up reducing the influence of average Californians in the process," Rusch said. "Democracy should be for all of us, not the very few."
Supporters of the bill point out that outside interests are already allowed to give $36,500 in contributions per year to every county-level Republican and Democratic political party in California, as well as the state parties, but typically do not. Mullin said he expects the bill will simply slice up the fundraising pie differently, instead of inserting more corporate money into state politics.
Under current practice in California, county party committees funnel money to the state party. The state party hands out contributions to candidates that receive its endorsements. If the party fails to endorse a candidate in the race, it does not spend money on that seat.
The new legislative caucus committee structure would allow Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, Senate Minority Leader Pat Bates and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Dahle, and their successors, to spend money on races in which the party has not made an endorsement. AB 84 could also help legislative leaders protect members under fire from party activists.
"I would like to see the bill amended so that money is not given to incumbents that contradict the core values and platform of the party to whom that incumbent belongs," said RL Miller, head of the California Democratic Party's environmental caucus and the leader of the grassroots organization Climate Hawks Vote.