© 1997 The Sacramento Bee - Editorial
Wednesday, October 15, 1997

By Peter Schrag

Political reform the old-fashioned way SB 49

It's been a truism among political moralists that the only way to enact any significant reform is through voter initiatives. Indeed, some reformers think that probably the best reason for having the initiative at all is to clean up the campaign and elections process. What legislator, after all, would ever vote to change the evil system that brought him or her into office?

But last week Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law what is or might become the most significant campaign reform measure of the past generation: a plain old bill, SB 49 by Sen. Betty Karnette, that will require electronic filing of campaign expense reports for state office campaigns on which more than $50,000 is spent, and that means virtually all.

Beginning with the year 2000 election cycle, all such reports will be online, and some will be online in next year's elections. That means that the citizen who wants to know how much money a legislative candidate received from whom will be able to find out without a trek to the secretary of state's office in Sacramento. The information will be available at terminals in most libraries and, of course, on any home computer equipped with a modem. Passage of the bill is not necessarily a sign that virtue is busting out under the dome, but even in the Legislature, the capacity to tolerate embarrassment sometimes reaches a limit.

Meanwhile, trial begins today in federal court in Sacramento on a challenge to Proposition 208, yet another voter initiative (passed last November) designed to impose campaign contributions and impose other good government reforms on the process.

The timing of the two events, of course, is mere coincidence, but a coincidence that deserves attention. For Proposition 208 is not the first political reform initiative to run into trouble in the courts in the past decade or so. Two others, Propositions 68 and 73, passed at the primary in 1988, were jointly and severally chewed up by state and federal courts. A more recent reform, the open primary initiative, is facing its own court tests.

It would be risky to draw too much of a generalization from these events; California's biggest step in improving campaign reporting and cleaning up the elections process came through the initiative process with the Political Reform Act of 1974, which created the Fair Political Practices Commission and put in place the basic reporting of political expenditures and contributions.

And yet, as should have become clear in recent years and even in recent days the barriers to more thoroughgoing political reform may lie not just in the unwillingness of self-interested politicians to clean up their own act. They arise from court decisions that have held that the ability to spend money in getting one's message out is an essential corollary to the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech.

One can argue about those decisions, and particularly about Buckley vs. Valeo, the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that erected the biggest of those barriers. Is there healthy debate, or even free speech, when one candidate or party can buy a big megaphone, and the other can buy nothing?

But it's hard to argue that it's an easy call, particularly since it's virtually impossible to curtail individual citizens or committees of individuals from publishing political tracts or buying newspaper ads expressing their political views whether about issues or about candidates. And if that can't be done without shredding the First Amendment, restraining political spending by candidates, even if not impossible, raises its own questions of fairness.

Last week's crash of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill in Congress another coincidence was widely read by the goo-goos at Common Cause and the reform-obsessed New York Times as yet another example of political venality. And for many people in Congress, no doubt it was just that. But it's also an illustration of how difficult substantive campaign finance reform really is, even when all concerned come to it with the purest of motives. And that's something the reformers never seem to acknowledge.

Which brings the case back to SB 49, the modest bill the governor signed last week. Its passage too took huge and sometimes frustrating efforts, both by people in the Legislature, by Secretary of State Bill Jones and by the indefatigable Kim Alexander, who runs the California Voter Foundation and who has been waging this fight for the better part of three years.

And yet disclosure the speedy, comprehensive and accessible reporting of which deep pocket gives how much to whom, which is what SB 49 requires may be the most effective check on corrosive political influence that can be devised. Three or four campaign spending initiatives have been passed, so far to no avail, despite the elephantine gnashing and stomping that attended their enactment. SB 49, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor the old-fashioned way, may actually work.