Sharpening The Political Watchdog's Teeth

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California's landmark political reform law fails to shine a bright enough light on who's giving money and how campaigns are being run.

That's the assessment of the new chair of the state's political watchdog agency, and the reason he is about to launch an effort that could ultimately lead to voters updating the law they enacted in 1974.

Dan Schnur was appointed chair of the state Fair Political Practices Commission last month, to fill the remaining six months left on the term of ex-chair Ross Johnson. Schnur, a longtime Republican strategist who's now on leave from his post leading USC's Institute of Politics, says he doesn't want the job after January; as such, he says he's free to pursue an aggressive agenda that focuses on some of the biggest gaps in California's prime campaign finance law, the Political Reform Act of 1974.

Schnur briefed Capitol reporters this morning on the path ahead -- of which the big news is his intention to appoint a task force charged with making recommendations to reform the 36 year old law's oversight of how campaigns are run. It's a timely topic, given we're now in the middle of what appears to be the most expensive political season in California history. He says the task force will be asked to suggest ways of "clarifying and simplifying" the Act.

One example: the information behemoth you're logged on to right now. Halfway through the intense 2010 election, online campaign efforts have become a staple of almost every contest in California -- and politicos lean on internet strategies, in part, to push the boundaries of what's allowed, precisely because they know the rules governing what happens here are pretty vague.

Schnur says he also hopes the task force (members to be announced in the next few weeks, with co-chairs from the two major parties) will examine the complex regulations regarding disclosure of campaign donors.

The panel is expected to make recommendations to the Legislature, which would then have to place a measure on the ballot to ask voters to modify the 1974 Act.

That project is pretty ambitious in its own right, but Schnur wants to do even more before his time leading the FPPC ends in January (the next governor will get to appoint his successor). The to do list for the short-time head honcho also includes possible action by the FPPC to clarify what is -- and is not -- 'advocacy' on behalf of, or in opposition to, a candidate. Political watchers will tell you that, too, is a murky mess... with many campaigns purposely avoiding the obvious words and slogans (vote for, vote against).

And, perhaps most intriguing to those of us in the political press, Schnur says he intends to make the FPPC an active player in the fall election season... speeding up the agency's historically slower response time to possible campaign wrongdoings and allegations. As the former politico-turned-regulator said today, a slap on the wrist and cash fine after the election often isn't enough to dissuade some from pushing the limits, but a public flogging by the state's top campaign watchdog -- and the headlines it would bring -- might be another story.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Pat Kohlmeier

    Where do I go to volunteer for the task force?!

  • Fido

    former politico-turned-regulator

    former? you sound so certain.

  • Marilyn Ditty

    It is time that someone weighs in on this crises at the state level. The impasse has put this state almost in bankruptcy and the elderly and disabled are in suspense about their needed services being cut which they need to just survive. The political “will” must be addressed to look at loss revenues in the 1)car registrations 2) commercial property excluded from Prop. 13 loss revenues there 3)taxing on oil at the site not the pump. These are just some ideas.