New pay-to-play law challenged in court

By Dana Scott

As of Jan. 1, 2023, school and county office of education board members are subject to “pay-to-play” campaign contribution restrictions due to the passage of Senate Bill 1439 and the changes it made to the Political Reform Act  PRA). Prior to SB 1439, these campaign contribution limits applied only to appointees and candidates for office serving on state and local agency boards and commissions and agency heads. Now, all elected local officials are subject to the same rules.

Despite passing through both houses of the Legislature unopposed and being signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the law now faces a direct challenge in court. On Feb. 22, 2023, eight business groups and two local officials sued the Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC), the agency responsible enforcing the PRA and any new regulations. In the suit, the groups, including the California Restaurants Association and the California Retailers Association, argue that SB 1439 is unconstitutional under the California and U.S. constitutions.

The groups argue that the law violates the California Constitution because the amendment made to the PRA through SB 1439 does not further the purpose of the PRA and therefore cannot be done through legislative action. The groups’ complaint states that “SB 1439 ‘takes a significantly different policy approach’ to conflicts of interests by local elected officials than the approach taken by the voters when they enacted the PRA [in 1974]. The PRA provided that campaign contributions would not create a conflict of interest in the elected official receiving such contributions. SB 1439 flips that decision on its head.”

As to the U.S. Constitution, the parties argue that SB 1439 and its restrictions unconstitutionally limits free speech by effectively prohibiting campaign contributions. The complaint explains that limits on campaign contributions “must be closely drawn and focus exclusively on the prevention of or appearance of quid pro quo corruption and not the prevention of the appearance of contributions to ‘obtain influence over or access to elected officials.’” Based on this requirement, the groups argue that the SB 1439 does not aim to address quid pro quo corruption and goes too far in its restrictions on speech.

Based on these arguments, the groups asked the court to issue a preliminary and permanent injunction preventing the FPPC from enforcing the new law. Nonetheless, the FPPC is moving forward with its enforcement of the law. At its February meeting, the commission conducted a pre-notice discussion of a series of new regulations that it will discuss and adopt at a later, not yet specified date.

Dana Scott is a CSBA associate general counsel.