After state Sen. Leland Yee's stunning arrest earlier this year, the Legislature's highest-ranking member urged his colleagues to finally fix a long-standing problem in California politics -- the corrupting allure of money.
"Sometimes it takes a crisis," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said after denouncing the San Francisco Democrat's alleged ties to international gunrunning during a speech on the Senate floor.
Since voting to suspend Yee and two other California senators indicted in recent months, Sacramento lawmakers have held a "day of reflection" and considered more than a dozen new pieces of ethics reform legislation. But while support for bills requiring more disclosure of gifts and contributions remains strong, interest in tougher proposals that would restrict politicians' fundraising and access to lavish free trips around the globe has waned significantly in the last three months.
"You can't be against an ethics bill the day after the scandal, but it's no longer the day after the scandal," said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in campaign finance law.
Proposals that seek to ban fundraisers at lobbyists' homes, double the amount of campaign finance reporting required annually and limit the value of gifts lawmakers can receive from outside groups passed nearly unanimously.
These are worthy pursuits, Levinson said, but they're clearly not the kind of systemic changes Steinberg was talking about several months ago when he lamented the distrust sown by the "legal, acceptable and necessary" truth that money can corrupt.
"We're nibbling around the edges, grabbing the low-hanging fruit," Levinson said.