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Amid Recall, CA Campaign Finance Agency Lifts Limits On Lawmaker Contributions

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The California Fair Political Practices Commission voted 3-1 to adopt a change in a longstanding rule that restricts how much money state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton can raise from fellow lawmakers to fight a recall.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Eli Flesch and Ben Bradford | Capital Public Radio

California lawmakers can now transfer unlimited funds from their campaign war chests to Democratic Senator Josh Newman, as he fights a recall. 

The state’s top campaign finance watchdog voted to strip the current cap on those political contributions, during a testy hearing Thursday.

State law is ambiguous about whether lawmakers can give beyond the usual $4,400 cap on contributions, when a colleague faces a recall. The state Fair Political Practices Commission has long ruled 'no.'

Commissioner Brian Hatch has worked with Senate Democrats to change that interpretation as a recall threatens their supermajority. 

Thursday's meeting to change the rule was a tense affair, with commissioners snapping at and cutting each other off.

Chairwoman Jodi Remke argued an emergency rule change —benefiting state Senator Josh Newman as he defends against Republican efforts to recall him — would make the commission look nakedly political.

"I believe this is the wrong time and the wrong venue for us to reverse a long-standing commission interpretation," Remke said.

Republican Commissioner Maria Audero rebuffed charges that the timing was politically motivated to help Senator Newman. 

"Imagine if this was the position that all the courts took: ‘We’re not going to make any decision on anything that makes an impact on something current,’" Audero said.

Complicating matters, the situation is a reversal from a decade ago. Then, it was Republicans requesting the rule change during the attempted recall of state Senator Jeff Denham, and the commission declining. Even the same law firm argued for Republicans. 

"Maybe I’m sitting where you were, but you’re standing where I was," said Republican attorney Brian Hildreth.

The commission voted 3 to 1 for the rule change. As Remke predicted, Republicans quickly charged that the commission was doing a favor for Democrats that appointed them. 

But Loyola Law School ethics and government professor Jessica Levinson says it’s not that simple.

"People are trying to make this story sound like one where Democrats are helping Democrats rig the election, so that state Senator Newman isn’t recalled," Levinson said. "But if you look at who actually voted, two are Republicans, and this is entirely consistent with the Republican worldview when it comes to campaign finance."

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