Public campaign finance bill is for ‘display purposes only’

On Monday, the Assembly passed sweeping legislation in a historic vote to
reform campaign finance in California.

Only it didn’t.

Lost amid the media reports and the cheering from advocates was a small
provision, buried in the second-to-last paragraph of the 16-page bill. It
stated that, “The provisions of this act are set forth for display purposes
only and shall not be operative.”

That uncommon provision, inserted on Jan. 24, lowered the threshold for
passage of the bill, which was sponsored by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock,
D-Berkeley, from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority.

It also stripped the bill of the force of law.

If the bill, as passed by the Assembly, were to pass through the Senate
unchanged and be signed by the governor it would do nothing, as it is “for
display purposes only,” according to legislative analysts.

So while it was widely reported that legislation authorizing public
financing of political campaigns cleared the Assembly, the reality was
different: Hancock’s bill would actually have to return to the Assembly
without the “display purposes” provision–and pass with a two-thirds vote–to
go into effect. Those votes are unlikely to come.

On Monday, the measure passed along a near party-line vote with 47 of 48
Democrats in support, and every Republican opposed.

“I don’t see a two-thirds vote happening at all,” said Kevin McCarthy, the
Assembly Republican leader.

Hancock still sees the passage as a victory, though she sounded doubtful
about future Republican support.

“I think the important thing is to continue the discussion of the concepts
of the bill,” said Hancock. “As more and more people talk about it, people
realize it is a very very good idea. This is an idea that could change the
political culture.”

Under Hancock’s proposal, any candidate who collected a requisite number of
$5 donations to prove their viability–and promised to forgo private
donations–would qualify for public financing, ranging from $250,000 for
Assembly candidates to $16 million for gubernatorial campaigns.

Because the measure would change parts of the Political Reform Act of 1974,
it requires two-thirds approval of each legislative house and the governor’s
signature, before being placed before voters in June 2008.

The “display purposes only” language was amended into the measure only a
week before the deadline for legislation to pass out of its house of origin.
Asked whether the deadline impacted the decision, Hancock said, “You bet.

But while it is not uncommon for bills to use non-binding “intent” language
to move through the legislative process, passing from committee to the
floor, and from one house to the next, Hancock’s AB 583 kept all of its
original language and simply stripped it of any legal impact.

“I’ve never seen this particular language used in policy bills before,” said
Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and a
two-decade veteran of the Capitol.

The “display purposes” provision, according to Simpson, has historically
been used for the various budget bills, but has not even been used for that
in the last several years.

The language was not the only political maneuver used to keep Hancock’s bill
alive. Three weeks ago, the measured faced certain defeat in the elections
and redistricting committee.

Assemblyman Tom Umberg, D-Santa Ana, who chairs the committee, planned to
side with the Republicans in shelving the measure (Umberg was the only
Democrat to vote against the bill on the floor). But on the day the bill
came to a vote, Assemblywoman Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, was added to the
committee. She sided with three other Democrats to bring the legislation to
the floor.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where Hancock hopes momentum from the
Assembly vote will push the legislation along.

“The more the issues is covered and discussed, the more interest and support
is gathers,” she said.

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