In addition to their campaign accounts, legislators create "ballot measure" committees of their own that set no limits on the amount donors can contribute. The committees allow legislators to ask special interests for far more than the $4,100 per election they can solicit for their own campaigns.
State regulations require the accounts to be used to support or oppose any ballot measure, including proposals still under development that might not pan out.
A Bee review found that some of the more than $2.7 million lawmakers collected through these committees in the last two years paid for items with tenuous connection to such measures, including thank-you gifts to donors, a lawmaker's tuition and contributions to nonprofits. In some cases, they also spent heavily on extravagant, out-of-state fundraisers.
Any company or other large donor interested in spending on a ballot measure can do so directly.
But after California voters approved campaign contribution limits in 2000, committees controlled by lawmakers became another vehicle for raising the large amounts of campaign cash needed for ballot measure campaigns.
Routing contributions through the candidate-controlled committees can "kill two birds with one stone" for donors, said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance and ethics expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"If you support the ballot measure and you want to just support the candidate because of just emotional support, or you want to support the candidate because you want to get something in return, it's kind of a win-win," Levinson said.