An amendment to the state’s Political Reform Act that went into effect this month could change how lobbyists and developers donate to elected officials going forward—and it could also force some politicians to recuse themselves from votes, or return money, if they’ve taken too much from a special interest with pending business before their governing body.
Senate Bill 1439 amended the Levine Act, which previously limited only appointed officials—not elected officials—to receiving a maximum of $250 from parties with business, like a pending license, permit or entitlement, before that board.
The old law applied those contribution limits to the time a vote was taking place and for three months after a final decision was reached on a project, but the new amendment will expand both the timeline and apply those restrictions to elected officials.
Some think the law will lead to improvements in public perception of how local government officials interact with developers and other people lobbying them for access, while others think it could merely shift how funds are contributed to City Council members going forward.
With the newly amended law extending contribution limits to elected officials, that means that City Council members, mayors and county supervisors will not be able to accept a contribution of more than $250 from people with a financial interest in votes before their meeting bodies.
The new timeframe for when contributions are limited is the 12 months before and after a decision is reached. It previously was just three months after a decision was made and only applied to appointed officials like city commissioners.
Labor contracts, competitively bid contracts and personal employment contracts would be exempt under the law.
Developers, people lobbying on their behalf and other people with financial interests in the outcome of votes would be subject to the limitations, and it’s believed that the $250 limit would be a cumulative amount across all interested parties, according to Sean McMorris, a transparency, ethics and accountability program manager with Common Cause, the main proponent behind the amendment.
Campaign contributions in Long Beach are limited to $400 for council races and $900 for the mayoral candidates, but those are scheduled for a routine adjustment this month, according to city documents. Contribution limits are adjusted regularly for inflation.
Contribution limits for City Council officeholder accounts are $750 per year, and the limit is $1,000 per year for citywide positions like the mayor. The limits could also apply to behested payments in certain situations.
Unlike some other cities, Long Beach commissioners don’t have officeholder accounts. So while the state law previously had contribution limits for people in appointed positions, it didn’t apply in Long Beach unless commissioners ran for local office. Recent election cycles have seen two such instances, with former Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mariela Salgado and Planning Commissioner Joni Ricks-Oddie running for council seats.
Ricks-Oddie won the 9th District council race, but because the law is forward-looking, the 12-month window for limits on donations to her would have started Jan. 1, like all the other council members.
Deputy City Attorney Taylor Anderson said that her office is working on fine points of the law and what it affects. The city is trying to identify what licenses, permits and entitlements might trigger the revision to the Levine Act so it can explain those changes to elected officials and those seeking office.
“It’s s a huge undertaking though,” Anderson said. “This law is a very big change.”
Unlike a Brown Act violation, which could nullify a vote and require the City Council or other body to re-vote on an issue, a Levine Act violation would be referred to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which could investigate the complaint. Violations are punishable as a misdemeanor and a fine of up to $10,000 or three times the amount the person unlawfully contributed or received, but the penalties would be levied against the officeholder.
Some legal interpretations say the law would apply to mayors who don’t vote but have veto authority, which is the case in Long Beach.
A key part of the law is that the person would have an opportunity to cure the violation by returning all of the money or the part that exceeds $250 in order to take part in a vote. They’d have 30 days from the time they knew or should have known about the contribution and the upcoming vote to return the money without triggering a violation. For contributions made after the vote, the cure period would be 14 days.
Anderson said the city is trying to help elected officials track this by beginning to include this in training officials receive and also by creating disclosure forms for parties with upcoming projects that require approval to state if they’ve donated over $250 to certain members.
She said the city is also looking at creating a tracking feature, which could notify people if they need to recuse themselves or return money in order to vote on certain items. That tracker could become public-facing once it’s implemented, Anderson said.
“I think we very much had a sense that this would change the landscape,” Anderson said. “It’s a huge shift from what everyone would do before.”
‘A closed tube of toothpaste’
Experts are torn on how big of an effect the amended Levine Act will have.
McMorris, with Common Cause, said that at the very least, this change should lead to increased trust in local politicians and could make it more comfortable for politicians to take certain votes because they won’t feel influenced by big-money donations.
“Yes, those monied interests have a right to lobby and contribute to a local campaign,” he said. “However, when they have business before those elected officials and those officials can affect their bottom line on how they vote, then there is the possibility of pay-for-play.”
McMorris said that he’s hopeful cities across the state will work to create some kind of database of contributions so the public and elected officials can know where people stand before important votes.
“It’s not about ‘gotcha’ fines,” he said. “It’s about compliance and being honest and increasing trust in government.”
Matt Lesenyie, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach who has studied how voters respond to campaign finance disclosures, said the effect of the bill could be more subtle.
It won’t remove money from the process, mostly because political action committees and independent expenditures are mostly exempt from the amendment, meaning there could be a shift in how candidates and incumbents receive support.
“It’s like squeezing a closed toothpaste tube,” Lesenyie said. “It doesn’t get it out. It just moves it around.”
There could be other consequences of the newly amended law. Like other FPPC violations, it could be weaponized by rival campaigns in the future who might point to an initial vote where a person accepted over $250 but not mention that the person cured the violation by giving the money back, Lesenyie said.
It could also have an unintended boost for incumbents. Lesenyie said this law was aimed in part at rooting out commissioners who used their positions to curry influence and build war chests to run for higher office. If everyone is limited, incumbents who potentially have policy victories and name recognition to rely on could face less competition.
“It matters, but in a world without money, it’s going to be the incumbent that keeps moving up because of the other things,” Lesenyie said.