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Political Reform Act of 1974 needs reform, says bipartisan commission assisted by UC Berkeley scholars
12 Jul 2000

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

Berkeley - The state's Political Reform Act of 1974, which requires public officials and others to disclose campaign contributions and possible conflicts of interest, is so complex and burdensome that it badly needs reform itself, according to a report released today (Wednesday, July 12).

A report from the Bipartisan Commission on the Political Reform Act of 1974 concludes that legislators should greatly simplify the statute or risk maintaining a system that is unfair to ordinary citizens interested in public service.

The University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies served as the commission's research arm. And a UC Berkeley law professor, Jesse Choper, was one of the 14 commissioners who worked on the report. The report's findings now go on to the California Legislature for review and possible action.

In all, the committee made 35 recommendations, including the following:

* Disclosure thresholds should be adjusted for inflation. For example, a "major donor" would be anyone who contributes $100,000 or more, not $10,000.

* Candidates should be required to identify the occupation of certain campaign contributors or return the donation.

* The maximum administrative fines for violations of the statute should be increased from $2,000 to $50 - $5,000 per count.

The commission report, however, focused primarily on the matter of fairness and the need to simplify the 26-year-old act.

"In its present state," the report contends, "the Political Reform Act is overly complex and unduly burdensome to many persons who want to lawfully participate in the political system.

"The Political Reform Act is in serious need of amendments that would simplify the Act and its implementation, lessen the expense and burden of complying with the Act, and make enforcement of the Act more fair and reasonable to many persons who use reasonable diligence but nonetheless violate some of its provisions."

Choper, a constitutional law expert and former dean of UC Berkeley's School of Law (Boalt Hall), said the commission's role was to take a narrow look at how the 1974 statute is operating. He joined the commission because he considers the overall issue a crucial one.

"The issue of campaign finance, generally, is one of a handful of the most important issues in terms of the future of the democratic system," Choper said. "We all know that it is virtually impossible to get elected to any significant office without lots of money, and we all know how lots of money influences how people operate."

The Political Reform Act, considered one of the toughest in the nation, provides for extensive disclosure of campaign and lobby finances; public officials' financial interests; and complex protections against conflicts of interest.

UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies analyzed more than 500 cases and actions brought before the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the agency that enforces the act. In addition, the institute held several focus group sessions, interviewing journalists, candidates and campaign managers.

Bruce Cain, the institute's director, said the study and commission report are especially important because disclosure is California's only form of campaign finance reform. There are no limits on campaign contributions or expenditure limits in California. Such measures have been passed by voters, he said, but struck down by the courts.

"This is the first significant report in a quarter century that really looks at disclosure seriously and really thinks about disclosure," said Cain. "We should be doing more studies and have more detailed information on how disclosure works."

Cain said the findings that most interested the institute included the following trends:

* The FPPC has turned to increasingly higher fines as a way to encourage compliance with the act. Whether by stipulation, administrative hearing or civil suits, FPPC fines of less than $1,000 were more rare and fines in the $3,000 - $7,000 range grew far more common.

* Most of the complaints filed with the FPPC regarding possible violations of the act were from third parties, typically political rivals of a candidate or public official.

* In recent years, the FPPC has placed less emphasis on trivial reporting violations and focused more attention on violations that involve an apparent attempt to conceal the identity of campaign contributors.

The commission report especially was concerned with enforcement actions against local public officials who made simple filing errors. In fact, the Institute of Governmental Studies found that new politicians, seasoned campaign managers and even the institute's professors and students made errors on the disclosure forms, which Cain likens to federal income tax forms and schedules.

"The key thing is that the (financial disclosure) forms are not trivial," said Cain. "You want to have reporting, but you don't want it to be so onerous and burdensome that it discourages your average Joe from running for city council. You don't want it to have a chilling effect."

The bipartisan commission study was approved by former Gov. Pete Wilson as the act approached its 25th anniversary. Various legislative leaders and the FPPC appointed the commissioners, which included former lawmakers, former FPPC commissioners, political consultants, attorneys, a retired lobbyist and others. Jesse Choper was Wilson's Democratic appointee to the commission.


NOTE: The full report will be posted on the Institute of Governmental Studies' Web site ( within a week of its release.


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