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Where does Jerry Brown stand on ethics reforms?

Where does Jerry Brown stand on ethics reforms?
Gov. Jerry Brown discusses a bill while meeting with advisors at his Capitol office in Sacramento. At left is advisor Nancy McFadden. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

One thumb up for Gov. Jerry Brown. And the other thumb down.

The governor signed a bill inserting a smidgen of sense in California's oft-abused ballot initiative system. Excellent.

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But he vetoed legislation imposing sensible ethics rules on Capitol politicians. What was he thinking?

I'm thinking Brown has always been a better political reformer out of office than in. And I'm not the only one who thinks that.

"He's not the reformer he was 40 years ago," says Bob Stern, who back then co-wrote the California political reform act that helped propel Brown into the governor's office during the Watergate era. "Then he was seeking the governorship. Now he is governor."

Maybe it's just human nature. Preaching temperance from the outside is much easier than sermonizing once you're inside the saloon. And it's simpler to regulate others than yourself.

But about the governor's laudable action: his signing the bill upgrading the century-old initiative system.

That there was ever any doubt he'd sign it says a lot less about the bill's merits than about his own quirkiness.

It's a modest improvement in the system but nevertheless significant.

Basically, the new law gives the public and Legislature input into the writing of an initiative with the goal of detecting legal flaws, avoiding unintended consequences, reducing the cost of collecting signatures, giving voters a clearer idea of who is bankrolling the measure and possibly aborting the ballot battle altogether.

The bill provides a 30-day public review at the beginning of the initiative process during which backers could amend their proposal. Additionally, after 25% of the necessary voter signatures are collected, the Legislature is required to hold a hearing on the measure — early enough for backers and lawmakers to negotiate a compromise that the Legislature would pass, avoiding the need for an initiative.

Also, sponsors will have an extra 30 days to collect signatures — a 180-day window rather than 150 — more time to use unpaid volunteers, relying less on expensive professionals, to circulate petitions. Signature-collecting these days can run well over $3 million.

And once a measure is on the ballot, the secretary of state's website will be required to list the top 10 donors supporting and opposing the initiative.

This was the product of some California reform groups, including the Think Long Committee and Common Cause.

The legislative sponsor, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), says the measure will give initiative backers a better crack at forging an alliance with the Legislature.

"You have the people's elected representatives and an initiative process that too often is used by folks with a lot of money." Steinberg says. "These are two very powerful forces that now travel their separate paths and often collide in a way that doesn't serve the public."

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So bravo for Brown. He signed a bill that might help a bit in writing better law.

But boo for his vetoing of three ethics measures.

They were launched in the Senate and motivated by the embarrassing indictments of two colleagues — Sens. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) and Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) — on federal corruption charges. Calderon was especially an inspiration, having been accused of accepting bribes, pricey meals and junkets. Both suspended senators have pleaded not guilty.

One vetoed bill, by Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), would have prohibited elected officials from donating campaign money to family-owned nonprofits; banned them from spending campaign contributions for house payments, clothing, club memberships or vacations; and required them to disclose the names of individuals funding their travel junkets.

Pretty simple. But Brown inexplicably, in his veto message, said these rules "would add more complexity" to existing regulations "without reducing undue influence." Guess we'll never know about the latter. But "complexity"? The Legislature passes and the governor signs complex stuff all the time.

"It doesn't make sense to me," Hill says. "It's strange."

Another bill, by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), would have required candidates to file campaign contribution reports quarterly, instead of semiannually, so the public could more often see who's investing in them. Brown said the state's technology wasn't up to it. Well, update the technology.

A third bill, by Senate leader-elect Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), would have lowered the annual value of gifts an elected official could receive from a single source from $440 to $200. More significantly, the measure would have barred politicians and their aides from receiving free tickets to concerts, sporting events, amusement parks, golf courses or resorts.

Again, Brown opined that this would add "further complexity without commensurate benefit." He said "some balance and common sense is required."

"I'm very disappointed and dismayed," says Stern, Brown's one-time reformer-in-chief. "These were the most significant reform bills in 20 years."

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, says of Brown: "I just think over time he has become cynical about how politics work. He's OK with the current pay-to-play system."

Maybe some of his advisors enjoy freebies, like Sacramento Kings games and Disneyland comps.

Maybe the governor just thinks this is a Senate problem, and the senators should handle it themselves.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, says: "These bills weren't particularly strong. And the governor certainly is entitled to suggest better ways to clean up a corrupt system. But it's his responsibility now to spell out what he thinks should be done."

Maybe Brown will after he's safely reelected to a fourth term in November. But don't bet on it.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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