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For Sale: Votes 

Campaign-finance reform no sure thing

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
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Photo by Debra DipaoloIn a year when the candidacies of John McCain and Bill Bradley got a big boost from their calls for campaign-finance reform, you might think a ballot measure aimed at keeping candidates from buying their way into office in California would be a sure thing.

Not so — Proposition 25, godfathered by multimillionaire and former candidate for governor Ron Unz, has failed to win the support of former allies in the campaign-reform camp. A Field Poll shows it too close to call.

Unz tried to craft a measure that would avoid the pitfalls of two previous attempts at reform that appeared on the ballot in 1996. One of those, Proposition 208, won voters’ support but was overturned by the courts.

“Nothing has survived in court in this state in 25 years,” Unz points out.

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So “court-proofing” reform and avoiding yet another round of litigation were central factors in the way Unz and former acting Secretary of State Tony Miller drew up this year’s reform package. But their eagerness to skirt judicial challenge has left the measure a peculiar potpourri of boldness and timidity. On the core issues of contribution caps and soft-money regulation, the measure seems faint-hearted; on more peripheral matters like monitoring and disclosure, it is forward-looking and creative. Where it strikes out into important new territory — on the issue of public financing — critics say it takes half-measures that will prove ineffective.

It has never been easy to rally reformers around a common strategy. Four years ago they were split into two warring factions, putting forward competing proposals on the November 1996 ballot. Proposition 208, sponsored by Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and Ross Perot’s United We Stand, went up against Proposition 212, backed by CalPIRG (the Nader-affiliated student public-interest group), ex-Governor Jerry Brown and a number of labor unions. The latter measure took a more stringent approach to contribution limits, capping gifts by individuals at $100 in legislative races and $200 for statewide contests and banning corporate and labor giving outright; under Proposition 208, individuals, companies and unions were all permitted to give $250 locally and $500 to any state candidate. On spending limits, 208 again took the gentler approach, calling for spending caps two to three times as high as 212’s; these were voluntary limits, made attractive to politicos by raising the contribution limits for those adopting them. The CalPIRG-union camp took the harder (and perhaps unconstitutional) line, making the spending limits mandatory.

The two campaigns spent much of their funds and energy bashing each other’s measures. “Meaningless gestures, empty words” and “Consumer fraud, not campaign reform,” said the 208 forces about Proposition 212; the 212 team responded in kind, labeling 208 a “retreat from the big problems . . . cosmetic improvements” that are “soft on special interests.” Fans of good government feared the exchange of fire would doom both measures. But while 212 failed by a hairbreadth 49-51 margin, 208 sailed to a comfortable 61-39 victory.

A lawsuit challenging Proposition 208 by an army of political players — Demo cratic and Republican state parties, a large union, the pro-life PAC and others — resulted in a court order in January 1998 blocking its enforcement, leaving California as one of the handful of states without any contribution limits in force. Into this vacuum stepped the deep-pocketed Unz.

The cautious approach Proposition 25 takes on contribution limits was understandable in the light of anti-reform appellate-court decisions of the past few years. But last month the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Missouri legislation limiting individual contributions to candidates to $1,075. This decision will probably lead to the reinstatement of Proposition 208’s caps in California, so Proposition 25’s higher limits (if it passes) would become irrelevant.

On the positive side, Proposition 25 substantially tightens reporting rules, requiring earlier financial disclosure of major contributions and expenditures. Candidates and ballot-measure committees would have to disclose in their advertising the identity of their top two donors, and the amount spent by the campaign to date. Additional disclosure requirements would be set for “slate mailers” that recommend candidates and ballot measures. Spokespersons used in ads and mailings, if paid, would have to be identified as such, protecting the voters from such stunts as TV reporter David Horowitz’s renting out his “consumer advocate” persona for $150,000 or former Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson Riles Jr.’s pitching “no” ads on school funds for a five-figure sum. Some of these provisions — mandating, in effect, certain political speech — might not pass the First Amendment test in the courts, suggests UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein, founding chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Miller disagrees, while acknowledging that courts haven’t ruled on such cases.

For political buffs who want to know all the details, and want to know now, disclosure would be more complete and more timely after 25. Financial-disclosure reports would be made accessible to the public through an Internet Web site within 24 hours of receipt. Links would also be provided to Web sites established by campaign committees. Similar disclosure for some local election campaigns would begin in 2002.

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