IE money talks in 2010 elections

Millions of dollars in campaign cash is slipping – marching – through the cracks of California’s political finance laws, as special interests unconnected to candidates buy TV time, radio spots and mailers to sway voters.

In the governor’s race alone, some $27 million has been spent thus far in the general election by politically powerful groups through so-called Independent Expenditure committees, or IEs.

The still-unfolding figure reflects the dramatic acceleration in IE money: In the governor’s race, the committees’ cash represents nearly a third of all the independent funds – $88 million – spent on all legislative and statewide candidates from the time voters approved a campaign finance reform law in November 2000 through the 2006 election cycle.

That law, Proposition 34, set limits on donations to individual candidates, but boosted the clout of the political parties to raise and shift funds, and spawned the proliferation of IEs. The measure, placed on the ballot by state lawmakers, was seen by the public as a way of curbing political cash.

In fact, all forms of campaign spending increased exponentially during the decade – to $1 billion, according to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. The spending is not the result of loopholes in the law, it is the result of intelligent design.

“It’s easy to forget that Proposition 34 was put on the ballot by state legislators in order to forestall more stringent campaign finance reform. Years later, it is very clear that those legislators knew exactly what they were doing,” said Dan Schnur, chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission. The five-member commission enforces the state’s campaign finance laws.

“All that’s happened is that the money has moved from going directly to candidates to the parties and other outside sources,” he added.

The imposition of contribution limits invariably triggers the escalation of outside spending.

In this year’s governor’s race, better than four out of five independent dollars is being spent to support Democratic contender Jerry Brown, and almost all of it comes from organized labor.

For Republican Meg Whitman, whose unprecedented $150 million campaign is largely self funded, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association and an ally spent some $2.1 million on her behalf, while nearly $3 million was spent in opposition.

The tally is far from complete with two weeks to go to Election Day.

But already the IE money is pushing the dollars in the 2010 governor’s race further into the stratosphere.

With Whitman’s fundraising near $150 million, Brown at $41 million, defeated GOP primary contender Steve Poizner at $27 million and the IE spending at $27 million, the price tag on this one race is $247 million, according to state financial disclosure documents. It is certain to climb as Election Day nears. It is the nation’s costliest gubernatorial election ever, although it is dwarfed by the $2.4 billion presidential election of 2008 or the $3 billion spent on hundreds of congressional races that year.

Clearly, the biggest beneficiary of IE spending is Brown: For every dollar his campaign has spent, the IEs have spent at least two dollars – either to help him or hurt Whitman.
The governor’s race is the biggest single magnet for IE money, but not the only one. IEs have spent some $30 million on races and causes that include health care, education, environmental protection and business and insurance industry regulation, among others.

Earlier reports showed the state Chamber of Commerce’s independent expenditure committee, JobsPAC, spending about $1.4 million on the race for insurance commissioner, including nearly $850,000 against Democrat Dave Jones and about $566,000 in favor of Republican Mike Villines, a former Assembly GOP Leader.

JobsPAC’s contributions include some $2.7 million from insurers within the past four weeks, including $775,000 from George Joseph, the head of Mercury Insurance, and $700,000 from Allstate. Mercury and its allies have long been politically active in the Capitol. Earlier this year, they spent some $15.4 million to push Proposition 17, which would have allowed insurers to give discounts to long-term customers. The measure was rejected.

The latest estimates put JobsPAC at about $2.6 million in spending, including about $1.4 million against Jones and $1.2 million for Villines — a figure that does not include $2 million in advocacy advertising on behalf of Villines.

Overall, the major IE spending ranges from $150,000 by the Jelly Belly Candy Company on behalf of Republicans, including Meg Whitman, to $8.9 million by the labor-backed California Working Families on behalf of Brown or against Whitman.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has spent $2 million to oppose Whitman, while a statewide law enforcement committee known as CAUSE has spent some $2.2 million on her behalf.

EdVoice, which seeks reforms in the state’s educational system, spent some $1.5 million, most of it in connection with the campaign of Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, for state superintendent of public instruction. Romero was defeated in the primary by Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch.

The California Teachers Association, meanwhile, spent nearly $1.6 million for Torlakson.

“IEs generally occur only when you have contribution limits,” said Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies and a former top enforcer for the FPPC. “Even when the limits are ridiculously high, as in the state’s limits which are 10-fold the federal limits.”

“The public would like to get rid of them, the public doesn’t like IEs,” Stern said. “But TV ads and to a much lesser extent radio ads, are the most cost-effective way of reaching a statewide audience.”

So how can the public remove the huge infusions of cash from political campaigns?

“Change the Supreme  Court,” Stern said.

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