Rooting out local government corruption starts with ending ‘pay to play’ – Marin Independent Journal

A new California law that went into effect this year may be the most important policy reform the state has enacted in half a century. No wonder special interests and the politicians they help elect are trying to kill him.

The law targets the practice known as “pay to play,” where individuals, groups and corporations make campaign contributions to local government officials just before and after they vote on items that provide direct financial benefit to the donor.

You might think that such blatant conflicts of interest were already against the law, but they weren’t.

Since the 1970s, the California Political Reform Act has prohibited conflicts in which elected officials vote on issues that affect their own financial interests. Since the 1980s, we have prohibited designated members of local boards and commissions from taking action on issues affecting taxpayers when the designated individual receives political campaign donations.

But politicians who were directly elected to office rather than appointed were exempt from that ban. Senate Bill 1439, which I am the author of, closed that loophole.

The bill is simple. He says local elected officials cannot vote on issues that have a direct financial effect on interests that have contributed $250 or more to the official’s campaign in the previous year. It also prevented local officials from accepting such a contribution for a year after the vote.

The new law will apply to votes on real estate developments, garbage haulage contracts and other matters where there is a direct link between an official’s vote and the donor’s financial interests.

The need for the bill was made clear in recent cases across the state. In 2016, a Los Angeles developer contributed $50,000 to a campaign committee supporting a city councilmember just two months before a scheduled vote on the developer’s project. In 2018 and 2020, nearly a third of the $125,000 donated to Huntington Park City Council members came from eight companies and their executives with outstanding contracts with the city, according to research by television news station KCET.

While it rarely makes headlines, it’s common knowledge that local officials solicit contributions from private interests that have unfinished business with the city council or county board of supervisors. That kind of heavy hand is not a crime unless the public official links his action to the recipient of a contribution. But preventing the public official from voting when he receives such a contribution would reduce the incentive for that kind of corrosive behavior.

Although the bill passed without a dissenting vote in the Senate and Assembly, special interests and local officials sued to try to block the law’s implementation. His arguments were false, and a Sacramento Superior Court judge agreed last month, dismissing the lawsuit and upholding SB 1439.