By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Holman fears approval of these high ceilings could undermine litigation defending lower limits — the much lower limits in the pending 208 appeal, for example — and would set a counterproductive precedent for efforts in other states. Trudy Schafer, legislative advocate for the state League of Women Voters, points out that no local government now sets limits that high, but governments might be tempted to raise their limits to conform to a standard the state prescribed — an ironic effect for a reform measure.
Critics have assailed 25 for doing nothing about multimillionaire candidates — the Perots, Checchis, Huffingtons (and, for that matter, Unz) — who try to buy elections out of their own pockets. But this “loophole” is no plutocrats’ plot — much as the public might like to stem such spending, the U.S. Supreme Court has held since 1976 that restricting candidates’ use of their own funds to “speak” to the public violates the First Amendment. Within that constitutional constraint, Unz and Miller manage to hobble tycoons a little: Candidates are forbidden to lend their campaigns more than $50,000 (would-be governors can lend $100,000), thus ruling out any recouping of big-buck investment after getting elected. Self-financed candidates (and anyone whose campaign gets more than one-tenth of its funds from the same source) are also barred from any publicly financed media credits or voter mailings, forgoing benefits Unz estimates at up to $10 million in value.
At least one widely abused loophole is closed by 25, making donations from minor children count against the parents’ donation limits. This is likely to reduce the number of politically precocious 6-year-olds who “max out” to candidates out of their candy money.
While 25 is loose on contribution limits, it is tough on their timing, making politicians take a break from the endless rounds of begging, establishing an off-season when donors would be protected from their outstretched palms. The hunting season for campaign cash would open six months before voting day for local candidates (one year before for statewide aspirants) and would close 90 days after the election. Funds raised post-election could be used only to pay off outstanding debt or bills, not held over for future use.
For the League of Women Voters, the fatal flaw in 25 is its permissive stance on “soft money” gifts to a political party. Parties can receive $25,000 per donor annually for use in support of candidates — but general-purpose gifts to parties are not regulated at all. Says the League’s Schafer, “While 208 had strict limits on this back door” (it capped everyone’s gifts to political parties at $5,000 annually), “25 leaves this massive loophole.” Unlimited corporate, union or individual giving to the parties, Craig Holman says, undermines the rest of the measure, since party organizations can be used in ways that are simply disguised candidate donations — phone banks to get out the vote, partisan polling and staffer support. Moreover, he argues, soft money can be used for direct-mail party fund-raising, with the party then funneling the proceeds to candidates’ treasuries. In short, says Holman, Proposition 25 makes soft money “a legitimate form of political influence peddling.”
Proposition 25 gives Californians their first opportunity in 12 years to say yea or nay on public financing of state campaigns. It would offer up to $1 million per election in the form of credits for broadcast-media advertising to candidates for governor and campaigns for or against a state ballot initiative — if the candidate or initiative campaign agreed to the voluntary spending limits. Candidates for other statewide offices could receive credits worth up to $300,000 per election, but aspirants to the Legislature are not helped. The state would set aside, out of the general fund, $1 per California taxpayer to underwrite these credits. Unz estimates this would net up to $34 million every election year, which would be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis until the pot was empty.
The League of Women Voters, which has long supported public financing of candidates in principle, argues that the specifics of 25’s plan are a formula for failure. The amounts offered are too small a part of what state campaigns now cost, the League maintains, to lure campaigns into accepting the spending limits. In the most recent attorney general’s race, for example, the winner spent $4.2 million, so $300,000 in free ads would not have been at all decisive.
Additional public financing comes in the form of voter information packets (four per election) in which candidates who accept the spending limits can insert a one-page message, with mailing costs waived. In essence, this lets them deliver four ads to every state voter for only the cost of printing — a more substantial enticement than the broadcast-ad credits.
The divisions within the reform camp, while not as acrimonious as four years ago, remain deep — and fissures this year run within organizations as well as between them. Though the League of Women Voters’ initial July vote to oppose it was unanimous, an October move to reopen the question almost passed; on the other hand, about one-eighth of Common Cause’s board opposed endorsing the initiative. At the Center for Governmental Studies, two staffers in adjoining offices speak publicly on opposite sides.
According to a recent Field Poll, Californians are evenly split, 38-38, on the measure, with one-fourth of voters undecided. But the bulk of “no” spots has yet to hit TV screens. Weighing in heavily against the measure are some of the state’s traditional big election spenders. The California Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) each ponied up about $250,000; the state Chamber of Commerce and California Business Roundtable anted five-figure sums. With few organizations lining up in Proposition 25’s favor, the chances of its winning are in doubt. Unz says he’s considering throwing more of his own cash into the fray, but adds, “It’s unreasonable for one person to have to finance campaign-finance reform.”
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