Even before California's new campaign contribution limits have been used in a statewide election, the state's political watchdog agency has increased the caps by 6% to reflect inflation.
The little-noticed vote last month by the Fair Political Practices Commission boosted the allowable donations to candidates for governor, attorney general, insurance commissioner, controller and other posts.
The maximum individual contribution to a gubernatorial candidate climbed from $20,000 to $21,200, while the limit for the other statewide offices rose from $5,000 to $5,300.
Proposition 34, the campaign reform package approved by voters in 2000, calls for an inflationary adjustment to spending limits in state races every two years.
But consumer advocates said the commission's vote undermined the spirit of campaign reform because it raised the limits before the original ones could be fully applied.
The limits governing statewide races did not become effective until Nov. 6, the day after the general election, meaning they were not enforced during last year's races. New limits on legislative races were in place, but an earlier commission ruling allowed Senate and Assembly candidates last year to use pre-existing campaign committees to collect contributions that exceeded the new caps.
"Voters put in limits because people wanted to stop the horrible influence of campaign contributions," said Doug Heller of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.
"To have politicians and their henchmen writing rules to increase these limits does not fit with the spirit of the law or any reasonable interpretation of the will of the public," Heller added.
The commission's general counsel, Luisa Menchaca, recommended the specific inflationary adjustments to the commission, reflecting changes in the consumer price index. She said in an interview that the timing of the increase "was based on a plain reading of the statute," which says donation limits will be adjusted on Jan. 1 of odd-numbered years.
Menchaca declined to comment on whether adopting cost-of-living adjustments so soon after the November election was in the spirit of the campaign reforms. But she said the law did not differentiate between adjustments for statewide races and those for other campaigns. "There was no reason" not to make the adjustments, she said.
Jim Knox, head of California Common Cause, said the contribution limits were already higher than those of all but two of the other states with limits.
"The fact that incumbents have been allowed to continue to raise money without regard to the contribution limits is ... scandalous," he said. "It is ironic that the contribution limits were increased" for statewide office seekers before they took effect.
The commission, created by the Political Reform Act of 1974, is charged with enforcing conflict-of-interest and campaign laws.
Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and an author of the 1974 act, said Proposition 34's language left the commission with no choice but to raise limits. The real problem, he said, is that the law already carries limits for individual contributions that are much higher than the federal limits.
"It's outrageous," Stern said, that Gov. Gray Davis, "if he runs for president, can get $2,000 from me," but that Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, if he ran for governor, could get more than $20,000.
The commission has devoted much of its staff time to implementation of Proposition 34, which was backed by the Legislature and passed by 60% of voters in 2000. It repealed Proposition 208, a reform measure with tougher limits that had been tied up in the courts.
The five-member commission includes two gubernatorial appointees and one appointee each for the attorney general, the secretary of state and the state controller. The panel, which has one vacancy, voted 4 to 0 on Dec. 13 to approve the adjusted limits.
In legislative races, the maximum contributions increased from $3,000 to $3,200 for individuals and from $6,000 to $6,400 for small-contributor committees.