It’s high time for Californians to admit that past attempts at campaign finance reform have not worked and that something new is needed.
Of course, the existing version of reform was never intended to work. It was planned as a smokescreen giving the appearance of reform while leaving special interests from labor unions and developers to casino Indian tribes and large corporations plenty of room to continue their corrupting activities.
Maybe that’s why all those interests now oppose Proposition 89, an initiative on this fall’s ballot that aims to provide public funding for candidates who display a significant level of grass-roots support.
Lest anyone doubt the spending of big-money interests has corrupted the political process – national, state and local – just try to remember the last time a California governor bucked the wishes of one of his big donors, or the last time a big city mayor in this state did anything like that.
And California is far from unique. All Americans could see the corrupting influence of political cash when Vice President Dick Cheney consulted privately with energy companies that had bankrolled President Bush’s campaigns (and met with none of their critics) in formulating a federal energy policy and then fought to keep the contents of those talks secret.
Voters in this state can’t do much about campaign reforms on the federal level. That’s up to Congress. But Californians can make decisions about what goes on here, and Prop. 89 will give them another chance in November.
In some ways, the proposed measure is similar to what now occurs in Los Angeles, where candidates for city office can get public funding if they agree to forego large private campaign contributions.
If it passes, the so-called Clean Money and Fair Elections Act will not make the existing year-2000 Proposition 34 go away. But it would lower the limits that earlier effort at reform now imposes on private fund-raising by candidates for state office. Under Proposition 34, no one donor can give any candidate for governor more than $44,600 in any four-year period. The limits are lower for seekers of lower offices.
But courts have ruled repeatedly that no law can limit what any person spends on his or her own campaign, and this year Democrat Steve Westly spent $35 million in the Democratic primary. Both the courts and Proposition 34 place no limits on donations to political parties and so-called “independent expenditure” committees, which are supposed to run “issues” campaigns separate from candidates’ own efforts. Good luck keeping them separate. A wink and a nod can say a lot, without any formal coordination.
Proposition 34 allowed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to maintain several issues committees of his own to push pet initiatives and other causes. It allowed labor unions to form counter-committees to fight those measures, with more than $60 million spent in last year’s special election. Unless rich people and special interests have suddenly developed new levels of altruism, someone has a lot of chits to call in exchange for all that money.
Some, like Republican Board of Equalization member Bill Leonard, maintain that instant reporting of all contributions would let voters be fully informed and hold candidates accountable for their funding sources. But how many voters will go online to check out the latest donors? How many read those lists today, let alone recognize which name is linked to what special interest? Answer: not many.
Which leaves this question for voters to ponder in November: Would the “Clean Money” measure solve the problem? Plainly, it would not solve all of it. There are no limits on independent expenditures. Multi-millionaires can still write checks to their hearts’ content to support their own campaigns.
But candidates who collect large numbers of $5 donations (the number would change in accord with the number of votes cast as time goes on) would qualify for major public funding if they renounce large private donations. The money would come from a 0.2 percent increase in the income tax for banks and corporations, which would raise about $200 million a year.
It’s not a perfect system, because no one can stop candidates from spending on themselves or giving to the parties and other supposedly independent committees.
But it might be progress if only because it opens the door for non-millionaires to seek high office without becoming beholden to big-money special interests which always expect something in return for their cash. That would be a big change from this year, when the three major primary election candidates were all so rich that when Democrat Phil Angelides put $1.5 million into his own campaign, the check was viewed as puny.