California Bill Seeks to Increase Campaign Donation Caps

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) –Rushing to pass reforms before the November election, California lawmakers are pushing a bill that will allow increased campaign donations to the heads of the Legislature.

Assembly Bill 84 would amend the state’s revered Political Reform Act and allow party leaders in both the Senate and Assembly to open and control their own political action committees. The change means that leaders could bypass the current $4,400 cap on individual campaign contributions and accept up to $36,500 from individual donors to give to other party candidates.

On Tuesday afternoon, a Senate elections committee narrowly approved AB 84 during its first legislative hearing.

The debate over whether to allow select lawmakers deeper campaign coffers is creating a massive rift between Democratic lawmakers and the party base, just months before a critical statewide election.

On Tuesday, the California Democratic Party unsuccessfully implored the committee to kill the proposal by Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Mullin.

The party claims the measure would open up new avenues for dark money to flow directly to the state’s most powerful lawmakers and diminish the state parties’ influence.

“This bill has unified the party more than anything I’ve seen in my tenure as a party officer in 10 years,” testified Daraka Larimore-Hall, Democratic Party vice-chair. “This bill is a step backwards; California politics simply does not need more opportunities for big checks to go to campaigns, period.”

Larimore-Hall speculated that if passed, the bill would allow caucus leaders to go against the state parties’ nominations and back candidates more in line with their own political views.

Open government groups are lining up with the Democratic Party against AB 84. They argue that interest groups will try to gain sway over elected officials by handing over five-figure donations.

Common Cause and League of Women Voters of California complained that the bill was introduced just a day before lawmakers left for summer recess and more time should be allowed for public scrutiny. The proposal must be passed by a two-thirds majority in both chambers by the end of the month.

“A bill that amends the Public Reform Act – a law that is designed to prevent corruption and the unfair protection of incumbents- should surely not be crafted in the backrooms and passed at the 11th hour without any real opportunity for meaningful input,” said League President Helen Hutchison.

Mullin told the committee that the purpose of the bill is to push back against independent political committees which have flourished since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. He coined the bill as being “anti-dark-money” and said it will add transparency to the donation process by requiring more stringent reporting.

“AB 84 simply extracts from the current opaque political party fundraising process, and creates a parallel committee and adds much needed sunshine,” Mullin said.

While more than 100 people testified against the bill, not a single public witness supported Mullin’s measure. Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern, committee chair, cautioned that the bill was being rushed through the legislative process and voted against it, adding that it wasn’t “fully-baked.”

Nonetheless, Stern’s committee passed AB 84 on a bipartisan 3-2 vote and it moves on to a Senate fiscal committee before a possible floor vote.

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