New California pay-to-play law taken to court

Your guide to California policy and politics
Ben Christopher BY Ben Christopher February 24, 2023
Presented by Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership, Southern California Gas Company and Earthjustice

New California pay-to-play law taken to court

For a bill described by its author as “the most significant political reform of the last 50 years,” Senate Bill 1439 sure didn’t get much attention when it was working its way through the Legislature last year.

The law, authored by Sen. Steve Glazer, passed without a single “no” vote. It was co-authored by an ideology-spanning group of Democrats and a Republican. No big spending lobbyists came out against it. 

But now some people are finally starting to take notice of SB 1439. And they’re taking it to court.

On Wednesday, a coalition of business groups — including those representing the building industry, restaurateurs and major retailers — sued the state’s campaign finance regulator, arguing that the law violates campaign finance rules and freedom of speech rights of local elected officials and the interest groups who want to contribute to them. 

The list of plaintiffs also included two local elected officials in the Sacramento area: County Supervisor Pat Hume and Rancho Cordova City Councilmember Garrett Gatewood.

Glazer, a Democrat from Walnut Creek, told CalMatters he isn’t surprised by the backlash, even if it took a little while to materialize.

  • Glazer: “I think it underscores how much of a political earthquake (the law) has caused within the broader interest-peddling community.”

Since the early 1980s, appointees to public boards and commissions have been restricted from accepting campaign contributions from the people or groups with business before them. The new law extends those restrictions to include elected officials as well, including city council members and county supervisors. 

Since the law took effect on Jan. 1, any local elected official who receives more than $250 from, for instance, a trash collection company seeking a contract, a contractor seeking a building permit or a restaurant owner in search of a new license either has to recuse themselves from voting on those applications for the next year or give the money back.

Though Glazer’s bill got no formal opposition, it was enthusiastically backed by government transparency groups including California Common Cause.

  • California Common Cause Executive Director Jonathan Mehta Stein: “It’s kind of an obvious pay-to-play limitation.”

As a cautionary tale, Stein pointed to the example of Lynwood in southeast L.A. County, where a local cannabis business association donated heavily to local city council members, even asking some to sign pledge cards to vote in favor of the group’s policy goals.

The industry groups suing argue that the law goes too far, creating a new legal obstacle course that will be hard for many businesses to navigate. They also say it will make it more difficult for local candidates to run for office.

  • Robert Rivinius, executive director of the Family Business Association of California: “Somebody could contribute to a local official, not even realizing that eight months later they’ll need a permit and all of a sudden the people they need a vote from aren’t able to vote.”
  • Rachel Michelin, California Retailers Association president: “We have a hard enough time, I think, getting really good people to run for office, particularly local office.”

Michelin also pointed out what she called a double standard in the law: The “pay-to-play” restrictions don’t apply to state lawmakers. 

Glazer acknowledged that point, but said the Legislature generally isn’t in the business of approving permits or contracts for individuals. 

  • Glazer: “Ninety nine percent of the proposed laws that come before the state Legislature are not specific to an individual financial interest. Would I like to close that gap? Yes. Absolutely. But I felt that a 99% solution was the right step.“

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Tuesday, California had 11,105,535 confirmed cases and 100,187 total deaths, according to state data now updated just once a week on Thursdays.

CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.California has administered 88,134,123 total vaccine doses, and 72.7% of eligible Californians have received their primary vaccine series.


1 More than 100,000 deaths

Visitors walk past a memorial for victims of COVID-19 at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles on Nov. 19, 2021. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo
Visitors walk past a memorial for victims of COVID-19 at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles on Nov. 19, 2021. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo

On Feb. 6, 2020, Patricia Dowd died in her San Jose home, killed by what appeared to be a “massive heart attack.” Autopsy results later showed that hers was California’s first known death resulting from what we were then still calling the “novel coronavirus.”

The virus and the steady toll of death left in its wake is now anything but novel. Just a little more than three years later, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 100,000 lives across California. That’s nearly 10% of the national death toll, which has passed 1.1 million.  

We aren’t quite sure exactly when California crossed its grim milestone. In the early days of the pandemic, the state updated its case and death figures daily. With the advent of vaccines and better treatments and the concurrent decline in fatality rates, the state’s COVID tracker is now updated only once per week. Since Jan. 1, roughly 23 new COVID deaths have been reported across the state each day. 

California’s declaration of emergency will officially end Feb. 28. But, as we’ve known for years now, COVID-19 is here to stay. 

Just ask state Sen. Anthony Portantino:

2 New leader for California community colleges

Kern Community College District Chancellor Dr. Sonya Christian. Photo via the Kern Community College District website
Kern Community College District Chancellor Dr. Sonya Christian. Photo via the Kern Community College District website

​​The nation’s largest system of public higher education has a new leader.

As CalMatters higher education writer Mikhail Zinshteyn reports, Sonya Christian has been hired as chancellor of the 116-campus California’s community colleges.

She replaces Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who resigned last summer. Christian is the first woman to hold the job on a permanent basis and the first person of South Asian descent. And as a former professor turned administrator in Kern County, her Central Valley roots may have appealed to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, as the system tries to make inroads there. 

  • Christian: “I do feel a sense of urgency and moral obligation to the job at hand. We have no choice but to succeed.”

She does indeed have her work cut out for her: 

3 Candidates prep, voters shrug

Left: US Representative Adam Schiff. Photo by Ron Sachs, CNP/startraksphoto.com/Cover Images via Reuters; Right: U.S. Representative Katie Porter. Photo by Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
Left: U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff. Photo by Ron Sachs, CNP/startraksphoto.com/Cover Images via Reuters; Right: U.S. Rep. Katie Porter. Photo by Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

California’s next big election is more than a year away, but its contours are already taking shape.

A UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies poll of registered Democrats and political independents found that Democratic U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine are neck-and-neck in the already-active March 2024 primary to replace U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Schiff was favored by 22%, with much of his support coming from older voters, and Porter’s support came in at 20%. 

Rep. Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat, came in with a meager 6%, but the poll was conducted before she announced her candidacy earlier this week

Other big caveats: Many voters still don’t know much about any of the candidates and 40% were entirely undecided.

  • Mark DiCamillo, IGS poll director: “These Congress people, who certainly are prominent in Washington….Wait until they see our poll, and they’re going to be shocked at how many people don’t have a clue about who they are or what they stand for.” 

While the jostling continues in the Senate race, more candidates are rushing to grab a spot down ballot:


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