This California Law Will Help Squash Local Government Corruption

In summary

A new California law targets the practice known as “pay to play” in which special interests make campaign contributions to local officials to influence a decision. The state senator who authored the law is calling for its preservation and expansion after a judge threw out a lawsuit that tried to prevent it from taking effect.

Guest comment written by

Steve Glazer

Steve Glazer

Democratic State Senator Steve Glazer of Orinda represents California’s 7th Senatorial District.

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. And since the 1980s, we’ve prohibited designated members of local boards and commissions from taking action on issues that affect taxpayers when the designated person 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 who had outstanding contracts with the city, according to KCET research.

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.

Learn more about the legislators mentioned in this story

Steve Glazer

State Senate, District 7 (Orinda)

Steve Glazer

State Senate, District 7 (Orinda)

How you voted 2021-2022

Liberal Conservative

District 7 Demographics

voter registration

dem 69%

republican 6%

there is no party twenty-one%

campaign contributions

Senator Steve Glazer has taken at least $78,350 from the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sector since he was elected to the legislature. represents 17% of his total campaign contributions.

Although the bill passed without a vote against in either the Senate or the 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 week, dismissing the lawsuit and upholding SB 1439.

His claim that the law violated donors’ free speech ignored that the law applies to elected officials, not taxpayers. Donors remain free to support whoever they want. Elected officials are simply not allowed to vote on issues that directly benefit their campaign contributors.

The argument that the law is flawed because it does not apply to independent campaign spending on behalf of elected officials is also misleading. Those bringing that case are well aware that the Supreme Court has ruled that such spending is protected by the First Amendment and could not be included in SB 1439.

Finally, the same interests that complain that SB 1439 violates their right to contribute question why it doesn’t apply to state officials as well. Although most state decisions apply to the general public, not to specific interests, I agree that the same rules should apply to state officials in the few cases where it is relevant. I intend to carry out that reform as a follow-up to SB 1439.

We need to preserve SB 1439, and expand it, so we can make sure our government officials make decisions in the public interest, not special interests.

More Comments on Senate Bill 1439

California's pay-to-play law could empower wealthy candidates and special interests

California’s pay-to-play law could empower wealthy candidates and special interests

A lawsuit was filed to try to stop a law that aims to curb the influence of pay-to-play in local government. One of the plaintiffs, a representative from suburban Sacramento, argues that the law could make it harder for diverse candidates to be competitive and further enable dark money from special interests.