The Santa Monica City Council put off making a decision at its May 10 meeting to increase campaign contributions to $400 for local elections. The governing body tabled the thorny issue until a later meeting, despite a suggestion by staff to increase the figure from $250 to the proposed amount to conform to U.S. Supreme Court, federal, and state court decisions. The council also amended a City ordinance to eliminate current restrictions on uncontrolled committees.
The council has struggled to come to terms with whether it should approve adjustments to campaign contributions. Complicating the issue, two Council members – Bob Holbrook and Pam O’Connor – were both absent from the May 10 meeting, making a vote more difficult.
“I oppose the direction to have this ordinance prepared,” Council member Kevin McKeown said, questioning the cost of living argument previously stated by his colleagues. “Why, at this point, should we jump from $250 to $400?”
Some of the City’s elected officials suggested the adjustment to $400 would be essentially be the same as what the current $250 limit was when it was enacted in 1992. They argued that it would not really be an “increase” but would simply allow candidates to keep up with rising costs and inflation. However, City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie pointed out in her staff report to the council there were some legal motivations for suggesting an adjustment in contributions limits from $250 to $400.
“The Supreme Court’s … decisions establish the rule that cities may not limit so-called independent expenditures (those made by committees not controlled by a candidate),” Moutrie said. “A line of federal cases establishes that contribution limits cannot be set so low as to potentially hinder candidates’ ability to purchase the advertising necessary to communicate their views.”
McKeown’s response was that raising contribution limits might actually hinder the voice of local voters in favor of corporate interests. “Most of the donations that come to individual candidates from residents of Santa Monica are not maximum donations; they are typically in $25, $50, (or) $100,” McKeown said. “The maximum donations, more typically, tend to come from business interests and others. If we raise this amount of money and go from $250 to $400, I believe that tends to swing the predominance of donations to outside corporate interests, not to residents.”
Moutrie added that contribution limits have not been adjusted in nearly 20 years, and current legislation did not call for the amount to increase incrementally to keep up with rising costs or inflation. She said the council had other alternatives.
“Council considered the information provided by staff, noted that the current City contribution limit of $250 had not been increased since its adoption in 1992, and included no escalator to reflect increasing costs,” Moutrie said. “Council could maintain the current code provisions despite the changes in case law, which would pose a significant legal risk. Additionally, council could establish a new contribution limit different than the limit proposed in the attached ordinance.”
In that vein, Mayor Richard Bloom tried to find a middle ground, suggesting a contribution limit of $325 as a possible compromise.
“I would encourage council members to find a middle ground here (of $325),” Bloom said in making a substitute motion. “There are so many ways you express yourself in an election. It costs money to do the things we do in campaigns. This $400 limit was intended for one thing and one thing only, and that was to keep the (amount) of funding that residents and others could provide to candidates level.”
Council member Bobby Shriver pointed out when the council of 1992 passed the $250 contribution limit, donations via independent expenditures (IE) were also regulated and limited, creating a sense of parity between IE (such as Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, or SMRR) and individual resident donations. However, with limits on IE since lifted, Shriver pointed out it is a different scenario today.