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Clean money the way to reform elections

No one likes our current system of campaign finance. Elected officials and candidates are burdened by incessant fundraising and don’t like being viewed with the frequent suspicion of engaging in pay-to-play politics. Donors feel extorted, with no choice but to keep writing larger and larger checks.

Corporations and unions are locked into an ever-increasing spiral of tit-for-tat escalating campaign contributions. Even most lobbyists don’t like it because, sooner or later, they are on the wrong side of the question “Do I have the most campaign cash or does my opposition?”

If you talk to the voters, well, they have plenty to say. Poll after poll shows that almost 75 percent of Californians believe that “a few special interests” dominate Sacramento.

And yet, no one can stop the machine and get off the merry-go-round. And who can blame them? Conventional campaign-finance-reform measures, while sometimes helping around the edges, make it more complicated to run and harder to raise money. The problem with trying to simply limit campaign contributions is obvious: As long as private contributions are the currency of politics, people will find a way around the limits. Just look at the steady procession of paid-in-full junkets that our elected officials of both parties take to destinations around the world. The problem isn’t the trips, it’s who pays for them.

Today, for all practical purposes, government is owned by the corporations, unions and large contributors who bankroll election campaigns, junkets and shareholder accounts. These special interests understand that campaign contributions are an investment. They expect–and receive–a return. Everyone involved in politics has their own favorite instance of the outsized government giveaway. Talk to Republicans and they will claim outrageous benefits handed out to unions. Democrats will regale you with horror stories of outrageous amounts of tax breaks and regulatory loopholes handed out to corporations. These stories have become so pervasive that the public has become inured to them, feeding a general dissatisfaction with government and elected officials.

That general dissatisfaction comes from the voters’ understanding that they no longer own or control government, because those who invest campaign dollars do, instead. In a certain sense, the current system is only fair. It vests the power in those who care enough in government to voluntarily invest in it with their money. But the returns on private contributions come out of the taxpayer’s pocket. And that’s not how it should be.

Shouldn’t the public get the benefit of the return on their tax dollars instead? There is an alternative: A voluntary clean-money system for publicly funding election campaigns. Since qualified candidates use public funds and aren’t allowed to use any private funds on their campaigns, they are beholden only to the public and the voters. In other words, the public reaps the benefit of campaign investments instead of private contributors.

But clean money’s benefits don’t happen automatically. It happens because the public understands that you only get a return on an investment that you actually make and has elected to make that investment.

Under a clean-money system, the public shares that ownership with their elected officials. Freed from the incessant rigors of constant campaign fundraising, elected officials are more able to respond to constituents’ concerns, to make policy decisions based on policy concerns, and to get more respect for doing their jobs again.

There can’t be any unilateral disarmament in campaign-finance reform. But providing a viable alternative, a voluntary system for publicly funding campaigns like the clean-elections systems working Arizona and Maine and now even with a bipartisan proposal at the federal level, lets everyone stop at the same time and allows control of government to rest where it belongs: in the voters and their elected representatives.

In this season of discussions of bipartisan election reform, the one area that is not receiving the attention it is due is what James Canales of the Irvine Foundation in last Friday’s Sacramento Bee described as “[d]ecreasing the need for and influence of money in the system.” The kinds of campaign-finance reforms that have been mentioned so far are minor adjustments to the margins of our campaign-finance system, not fundamental reform. They have no chance of fundamentally changing ownership of our government. Clean money, on the other hand, serves many of the same goals that the redistricting and term limit adjustment proposals address: more competitive races leading to more responsive, effective and representative elected officials. A well-crafted clean-money measure should be part of the bipartisan reform package because without it, the public still won’t really own the election process.

In addition, the Legislature has two opportunities this session to shift control back into their own hands and the hands of the voters. AB 583 (Hancock) would place a measure setting up a voluntary system of full public funding for all statewide and legislative offices on the ballot. SB 536 (Simitian) would set up clean-money public funding for Insurance Commissioner races, an office where the perception of “ownership” by the insurance industry is most damaging. It’s time for Californians to stop ceding the power of investing in campaigns to special interests, and reassert control over the government that was originally designed to serve all. True progress towards clean-money reform is an essential step toward this needed change.

Susan Lerner is executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign.


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