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New Gift Regulations for California, Finally

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Just in time for the holidays Californians may receive a present from the state's political watchdog agency -- new rules for public officials concerning the acceptance and disclosure gifts.

This agency, the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is essentially California's equivalent of the Federal Elections Commission. The FPPC, established more than 35 years ago by the Political Reform Act, is charged with administering, interpreting, and enforcing the Act. The Act covers matters related to lobbying, conflict of interest, and campaign financing and spending. Broadly, the purpose of the Act and the guiding principal behind the FPPC is to ensure that public officials serve the public, not themselves.

However, that simple and rather uncontroversial goal can lead to a myriad of laws and regulations. The regulations of the FPPC are too often confusing and complex. Those wanting to comply with regulations can be left wondering how to accomplish that sometimes-arduous feat. Unfortunately, such complexity can undermine the very purpose of the Act. Simply stated, if people do not know how to comply with the regulations, it is difficult to see how the goals of the Act can be fulfilled.

Realizing that we now have regulations upon regulations, the new Chairwoman of the FPPC, Ann Ravel, and her staff, have begun the arduous task of clarifying many of those regulations. This is, to be sure, no small undertaking. It is also necessary regulatory reform. First up, gift regulations.

Ravel and her staff have waded through the muddled morass of regulations and, with the benefit of numerous public hearings and meetings, have proposed many common sense ways to clarify and streamline those regulations. Specifically, the proposed changes would address when gifts to public officials need to be reported and counted to the annual gift limit of $420 from individuals to many public officials. These changes are sorely needed. It simply should not be that public officials are unclear on how to act in conformity with rules regulating their conduct.

The Commission will vote in early December on many of the proposed changes. Let's hope that real regulatory reform will be in place by the time the gift-giving season is upon us.