Feed the watchdog

E-mail Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata at Perata@sen.ca.gov.

This fall, by the time votes are counted in the November election, it’ll be too late.

Vast amounts of money will have been spent—in all likelihood, much more than the record-setting $250 million spent on last November’s special election—yet the state agency charged with overseeing all of this spending will have fewer resources than ever to deal with complaints of illegal campaign contributions and expenditures. The result: Special-interest money will have played a bigger role than ever in dictating the kind of government Californians will have.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. Right now, there is legislation pending in the state Senate that would provide the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state’s most important watchdog organization, with the funding it needs to oversee the electoral process. But that legislation—Senate Bill 1120, authored by Sacramento Senator Debra Ortiz—has been sidetracked by politicians who’d prefer to see the FPPC remain toothless.

That’s why you need to speak up.

Chances are you haven’t thought much about the FPPC, so perhaps a little background is in order: California voters created the commission with the passage of the Political Reform Act of 1974, a ballot initiative conceived in the wake of the Watergate scandal and backed by voters tired of the corrupting influence of money in state politics. Passed by an overwhelming majority, the act’s chief provision is to require full, public disclosure of campaign donations and expenditures, as well as money spent in connection with the lobbying of state legislators.

Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? After all, we can’t really know the candidates and initiatives on the ballot unless we know who’s funding them. But enforcement of the act was left to the FPPC, whose funding was entirely at the mercy of the state legislators it was supposed to oversee. Over the years, as corruption complaints have mounted and costs have risen, FPPC funding has remained static. In 2005-2006, the commission’s total budget was $6.1 million—virtually the same as it was 15 years ago.

As a result, the FPPC has been forced to slash its staff from 91 in 1990 to just 60 today, at a time when it’s receiving more complaints than ever. The predictable result is that the FPPC simply isn’t able to look into hundreds of the complaints it receives each year. One report showed that during the period of May-October 2005, some 225 reported violations of election law went uninvestigated because of the lack of resources.

Senator Ortiz has tried to remedy the situation, authoring a bill that would increase FPPC funding to $9 million per year and include provisions for annual cost-of-living adjustments. But S.B. 1120 failed to pass the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee and was shuffled to the Rules Committee, where it’ll stay—unless you speak up.

We urge readers to contact their state legislators and let them know that S.B. 1120 is too important to die in committee. Contact Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata—(510) 286-1333 or (916) 651-4009—and tell him you want to see progress on this key piece of legislation. Let’s feed California’s watchdog, before it’s too late.