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Shame on California lawmakers for abandoning an effort to reduce the influence of money in politics

Just two years after California senators voted to bar themselves from fundraising during the busiest times of the legislative year, they voted Thursday to dump the blackouts because they were an inconvenience in tough re-election campaigns. Shame on them for abandoning this small step toward reducing the influence of money in lawmaking.

It's not as if senators had sworn off accepting money from lobbyists and special interests altogether — the ban was in effect just for a mere 30 days during the budget-writing season, which this year begins on Monday, and then again for the final 30 days of the legislative year. The money could flow freely the other 10 months of the year.

What's more, the blackouts were adopted to avoid harsher constraints, such as then-Sen. Alex Padilla's proposal to prohibit fundraising by all legislators during the final 100 days of the session. Yes, they were a hardship for senators facing well-funded opponents who weren't constrained by such rules (most notably, Assembly members). But the situation at the time called for action. Two senators were under indictment for corruption, and a third was awaiting sentencing for voter fraud.

Let's face it, the public is cynical enough about Sacramento without lawmakers pocketing campaign cash en masse from special interests during a crucial time for voting on legislation. That's why the Assembly should have embraced similar fundraising timeouts last year, thus making it more likely the fundraising reform would last longer than a single election cycle. Instead, the Assembly held 42 fundraisers during last year's first 30-day blackout.

The ostensible reason to lift the blackouts was to balance out uneven races such as the one Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) is in. Beall is being challenged by Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose), one of the moderate Democrats backed by oil industry money. Campos has raised substantially less than Beall — just $323,000 to his $596,000. She has, however, been buoyed by some $330,000 in independent spending by a group not constrained by fundraising limits: an independent committee funded by Chevron, Valero and others.

Lifting the blackouts might help Beall counteract the millions being spent by the oil lobby to protect Campos and other moderate Democrats. Those lawmakers forced Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) to drop a piece of last year's climate change bill, SB 350, that would have cut petroleum use in half by 2030. Being attacked by one set of special interests, however, doesn't justify a lawmaker cozying up with others.

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