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The Cost of Power

L.A. City Hall is clearly jittery about the City Ethics Commission’s latest package of campaign-finance reforms. So jittery that the City Attorney’s Office has branded the reforms constitutionally infirm and the mayor has threatened a veto. So jittery that the package was held in committee for nearly six months before even being sent to the council floor. So jittery that the council debated it for two hours last week, gave up to try again Tuesday, then gave up once more after spending another two hours debating, and finally passing, only the smallest and least objectionable measure in the package.

The cornerstone of the reforms, to be taken up April 23, deals with the phenomenon of independent expenditures, an arcane term that, in essence, is the local version of soft money.

The Ethics Commission and its backers say L.A.’s sophisticated system of matching funds and spending limits has been undermined, beginning with the 2001 election season that put Jim Hahn in office, by unlimited outside spending from labor unions, billboard companies, political parties, corporations and others.

City law already deals with independent spending, but in a way that critics say actually may do more harm than good. You may agree to hold down your spending in return for getting city matching dollars, but when your opponent gets a boost from some outside group not subject to spending limits, you get to spend more too, to keep pace. The problem is that your opponent’s spending cap also is lifted, so your opponent gets a double boost and you are left behind once again.

To the City Attorney’s Office — although not Rocky Delgadillo, since he recused himself from the matter due to his own windfall support from billboard companies — it is a First Amendment problem. City lawyers refuse to sign off on any proposal that would only let opponents of candidates benefited by independent money blow the spending cap.

The council may go ahead with the measures anyway and try its luck in court, if anyone decides to sue. Delgadillo’s chief deputy, Terree Bowers, said his office may well choose to take the case and could defend it vigorously, and perhaps win, despite its advice to the council Tuesday that a federal court is likely to reject the reforms as unconstitutional.

But it could never get that far since Hahn has vowed to veto anything that fails to get the city attorney’s sign-off.

The council, in the midst of dealing with more mundane reforms Tuesday, was distracted by the proposed change in independent expenditures. It all goes to the question of who the soft money actually benefits, and centers on worries about what top council aide Ron Deaton characterized as two kinds of independent donors: the Machiavellian and the stupid.

The would-be Machiavellian donors mount an independent campaign for you, sending out mailers and making phone calls urging voters to put you in office. All the time, though, they really want your opponent to win, and their support is so lukewarm or even damaging that you get no benefit. Under the new city law, though, the Machiavellian would have certified that his money was meant to get you elected. As a result, you now don’t get your spending cap lifted. But your opponent does.

It was this effect that council President Alex Padilla had in mind. An independent group that wanted him out of office could simply post a billboard saying, “Vote for Alex Padilla, He Supports Reopening Lopez Canyon Landfill,” although, he said, he holds the opposite view.

The response from commission officials: Machiavelli would be subject to criminal prosecution for playing games with the system. Commission President Miriam Krinsky scoffed at the notion that independent money was being spent by sneaky campaigners.

“It hasn’t been all that subtle,” Krinsky told the council. “Names plastered on billboards.”

The real problem may well be the stupid independent donor, a term Deaton attributed to his wife. Such donors may intend to benefit you — but be so inept at it that they cost you the election.

It might be wise to ask Councilman Nick Pacheco about this one. People he calls friends spent thousands of dollars to get him re-elected, but because of negative publicity about the independent spending, Pacheco’s own ethics were called into question, and voters overwhelmingly turned him out.

One way or another, the council will have to grapple with the issue Wednesday, or risk losing the chance to deal with the issue until after the 2005 elections. The fund-raising window already has opened for the next round of elections, and Hahn has already filed — under the old system.

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