Modernization of California’s political ethics law moves into final phases

610 200 Amber Nelson

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After hundreds of hours of discussion, redlining and revisions, the project to modernize California's Political Reform Act is nearing its final stages. The months-long process to modernize and simplify the law, led by the Fair Political Practices Commission, hit an important milestone as the FPPC approved the revised version of the state's political ethics rules.

Originally drafted in 1974, the Political Reform Act (PRA) was California’s answer to the Watergate scandal. The PRA was envisioned as a rulebook for those involved in lobbying, campaigning and holding public office. Over the past four decades, the PRA has been revised and amended repeatedly. The resulting document is hundreds of pages of sometimes conflicting, often confusing language that is anything but user-friendly.

“We want to make it easier for people to get involved in the political process,” said FPPC Chair Jodi Remke. “After 40 years of changes, the unintended consequence of the law is that it’s overly complex and cumbersome, making it difficult for people to understand, fostering distrust, and discouraging participation in government.”

The FPPC sought to address the serpentine document through the Political Reform Act Revision Project, a revision process that has solicited insight and input from a wide variety of stakeholders and subject matter specialists. It started with a line-by-line editing of the law. The initial editors were two teams of law students from UC Davis and UC Berkeley who brought fresh perspective to the aging document. Together, the teams considered the structure of the PRA from the table of contents to the various sections to overall readability. The resulting document was available on the FPPC’s website with a layout that allowed viewers to see the original document and the revised versions side by side.

“By comparing the existing language to the revised language, it’s easy to see how using the simplest, most straightforward words and sentences improves clarity and readability,” said Chair Remke. “And by drafting for the casual reader, the law isn’t any more complex than necessary.”

Next, the FPPC, in collaboration with California Forward, with funding from the James Irvine Foundation, took the show on the road with public comment sessions across the state. These forums gave political attorneys, treasurers, ethics officers and other interested parties the opportunity to share their insights and ideas and ask questions. Those who could not join the discussion in person could submit comments via the FPPC’s website throughout the three-month long comment period.

All of the public input was carefully considered before the revised PRA went through a professional re-drafting in plain English. Prof. Bryan Garner, the man who literally wrote the book on modern usage of the English language, was joined by his team at LawProse, a company dedicated to clarity in legislation and other legal writing, to complete a thorough edit of the document.

“People ought to be able to consult the law and feel enlightened, not baffled. That’s the goal,” said Prof. Garner.

In early December, the second-draft document was released for a one-month public comment period. As with every stage of the process, the FPPC invited the public to share their recommendations and observations via the FPPC’s website.

The next step is for the FPPC to meet with members of the Legislature and legislative staff to update them on the year-long project and develop the best approach to adopt the revised PRA. The FPPC is also focusing on a judicious and effective implementation process, which would include a wholesale clean-up of all regulations to update statutory references.

Though the official public comment period is closed, the FPPC is still listening. “All comments from stakeholders are still welcome and will be considered,” said Jodi Remke, FPPC Chair. “The legislative process itself will also provide ample time for comments as the proposal moves through the Legislature,” she added.


Amber Nelson

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