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Special election fuels some Democrats’ efforts to renew push for public financing of state campaigns

The Capitol is still reeling from an unprecedented $300 million campaign
spending bender from the special election, but curbs on political spending
have yet to emerge–even though political leaders loudly denounce deep-pocket
special interests.

Some Democrats are looking to Arizona as they push anew for public financing
of political campaigns, and they are gathering more sponsors and support as
they prepare for a legislative showdown in 2006. But legislative leadership
in both parties thus far have not embraced the proposal.

For his part, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says that when it comes
to campaign finance reform, he’ll consider anything, anytime, anywhere.

“Absolutely,” the governor told the Los Angeles Times recently. “Whenever
you open up a can of worms, you’ve got to let everything come in. Every
idea. We’ll have those debates and then put an initiative on the ballot if
the legislators don’t want to vote for it.”

“The way [campaign financing] is going, it has become like a circus. The
ones benefiting from it are the television stations. Look at the amount of
money they are making right now.”

At least a half-dozen campaign finance-related bills have died since 1999.
The latest effort is AB583 carried by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock,
D-Berkeley, who now has 17 Democratic coauthors on her bill.

“The public perception that everything in Sacramento is for sale is a big
factor in the loss of public confidence that shows up in opinion polls,” she
said “Candidates should be accountable only to their constituents,” adds
Hancock.

“I can’t imagine that it would get even one vote from Republicans. And
remember, there are special interests on both sides of this issue,” said one
ranking GOP staffer.

Hancock says that voter disgust with the financial excesses of the special
election has given the effort new momentum. If ultimately approved by the
Legislature, her bill would be placed on the ballot. It requires a
two-thirds vote for passage–which means that at least a handful of
Republicans, in addition to majority Democrats, would be needed to support
the bill.

Hancock’s proposal calls for public financing of campaigns for the
Legislature and statewide offices. In order to quality, a candidate would
need to get a certain number of $5 “qualifying contributions.” The necessary
number would range from only 500 for an Assembly seat to 25,000 for
governor.

In return, candidates would be given public funds, ranging from $100,000 for
a primary campaign for an Assembly seat to $12 million for a gubernatorial
candidate in a general election. Hancock said the cost of the proposal would
between $120 million and $130 million a year. She added and that she and
other lawmakers are still evaluating a variety of potential sources of
money.

Candidates would not be required to take public funds, but would have to
agree to several rules if they did. Those who did not want to agree to these
limits would be free to raise money and run in the traditional manner,
though publicly financed candidates may get extra money if they are outspent
by private-money opponents.

Hancock’s bill is based very closely on an initiative passed by Arizona
voters in 1998. Arizona’s law has been in effect for three election
cycles–2000, 2002 and 2004–and has been successful in widening access to,
and interest in, the political process, says Doug Ramsey, communications
director of the Phoenix-based Clean Elections Institute.

As evidence, Ramsey cites election statistics that show an average 13
percent rise in the number of candidates running in legislative and
statewide races in these years versus 1998. Meanwhile, the number of female
candidates rose by an average of 47 percent and the number of minority
candidates jumped 42 percent. Meanwhile, the number of “clean” members among
the 90 Assembly members and senators of jumped from 14 in 2000 to 42 in
2004; 10 of 11 statewide offices are held by such candidates.

The biggest difference, Ramsey said, has been in political donations. While
a huge percentage of donations used to come from two or three high-income
zip codes near Phoenix, the state is now seeing $5 qualifying donations from
rural areas that had not registered donations in years.

“People are getting contributions from places where no one had ever sought
contributions,” Ramsey said. “No one was interested in them before.”

However, Ramsey said, the law has had some unexpected consequences. The
numbers of women and minorities in the Legislature stayed essentially
unchanged, and Republicans have actually strengthened their majority.

Ramsey said the law has become increasingly popular. The initiative passed
with a mere 51 percent of the vote, but an Arizona State University poll
last year found that 57 percent of voters approved of the law, with a mere
18 percent against.
Still, not everyone is thrilled about the Arizona law.
Tim Keller, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the legal group
Institute for Justice, said the law infringes on free speech because it
gives major advantages to candidates who take public money. For instance, he
said, in 2002, Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon raised
$750,000 in a fundraiser with President George W. Bush–but had to shell out
$250,000 to pay for the event. The state then gave a full $750,000 to each
of Salmon’s major opponents. He added that he believes the law leads to more
extremist candidates by keeping them from being answerable to interest
groups.

The Institute also challenged the law on the grounds that it unfairly forces
citizens to pay for political causes–the law is financed with a surcharge on
traffic tickets and criminal penalties. The institute lost in state court
in 2002.

“They’re asking citizens to put their money where their mouth isn’t,” Keller
said. “We believe its compelled political speech.”

Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, contested that the idea that
publicly financed elections would not lead to changes in legislation. He
pointed to Maine, which passed a publicly financed elections law in 1996 and
recently voted to begin a large-scale pilot program for single payer
healthcare. A few years from now, Leno said, California’s may have Arnold
Schwarzenegger to thank for similar reforms.

“Isn’t it ironic that this failed false reform effort put forward on
November 8 helped bring attention to the need for real reform?” Leno said.


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