Good News for Transparency in Government

By Dawn Whitney, ECOS Executive Committee

SB 1439 became effective in January of 2023. It is a good advancement in laws prohibiting “pay to play” contributions made by developers and lobbyists. This recent amendment to the Political Reform Act of 1974 extends preexisting prohibitions on campaign contributions made to appointed officials to include local elected officials. It applies only to contributions made after the law was passed.

It expands the period of disclosure for contributions of $250 or more, made by project applicants and lobbyists, to 12 months before and 12 months after a decision to grant a permit or other entitlement.

The changes made by SB 1439 are straight forward prohibitions on “pay to play”: If an official has accepted a contribution of $250 or more at any time in the twelve months prior to a decision to grant a permit or other entitlement, the official can return the money and vote on the application, or simply recuse and keep the contribution. It is not a huge departure from accepted practice. Eighteen major and large cities in California already have such a law on their books.

In February of this year, developers, trade groups, Sacramento County Supervisor Pat Hume, and Rancho Cordova City Councilmember Garrett Greenwood filed a suit in Sacramento County to throw out SB 1439. They claim that this legislative amendment does not comply with the amendment requirements of the original ballot initiative of 50 years ago; however, the initiative explicitly permits amendments passed by two-thirds of the legislature. SB 1439 was passed unanimously by both houses of the California legislature.

The plaintiffs in the suit also claim the new law violates their First Amendment rights, arguing that unless a prohibition addresses actual quid pro quo transactions, it violates constitutional rights.

The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the defendant in this case, argues that such a very narrow interpretation is not legally correct, and does not promote the purpose of the Political Reform Act.

The Sacramento Court is set to rule on May 25, 2023, whether SB 1439 stands as written, must be repealed, or needs a change somewhere in between. In the meantime, the FPPC has announced it considers the law to be in full effect and will proceed to draft supporting regulations.

Watchdog groups should monitor contributions over $250 to elected officials made by permit applicants and supporters of permit applicants. These contributions must be disclosed not only by the elected officials, but also the applicant and developer.

For more info, see:

SacBee, March 13, 2023: “Local electeds are suing to stop transparency”

Posted in News.