Clean Money and Fair Elections Have a Fighting Chance in California

* Today's hearing will be crucial

By Trent Lange, Commentary

AB 583 (Hancock, D-East Bay), the California Clean Money and Fair Elections Act, has gotten further than any Clean Money public financing bill has ever gotten in Sacramento, and now has a critical Senate Appropriations hearing today.

AB 583 would set up a Clean Money pilot project for Secretary of State candidates in 2014 and 2018 if it is approved by the voters in 2010. The Secretary of State race makes an ideal test for public financing because it will have a low cost and would show voters and elected officials that Clean Money will work for statewide elections in California. Most importantly, voters will instantly understand why the elected official who oversees the integrity of elections needs to be completely free from any possible pressures due to private campaign contributions and partisan meddling, as the fiascos in Florida and Ohio attest.

Based on the highly successful systems that have been working in Arizona and Maine since 2000, candidates who show a broad base of support by gathering 7,500 $5 contributions and signatures and who agree to strict spending limits and spending no private money for their campaign would receive about the same amount of base funding as Secretary of State Debra Bowen spent in her 2006 campaign -- but without fundraising costs and without having to spend most of their time fundraising. Participating candidates would receive "fair fight" matching funds (up to a limit) if they are outspent by a privately-funded candidate or subject to independent expenditures. This would provide a level playing field for all qualified candidates and allow voters the opportunity to vote for candidates who accept no private contributions.

Similar provisions in Connecticut's new public financing law are why about 70 percent of its Assembly candidates are expected to sign on in its very first year. As Connecticut state Representative Al Adinolfi said, "Some objected to it originally, but they're happy with it now. It gives them more time to get involved with the issues, it keeps everybody on a clean playing field."

Now With Funding Sources

The bill is being amended to get over its biggest hurdle: a funding source. As Senator Elections Chair Ron Calderon said when he voted to pass AB 583 out of the Elections Committee, it would need a funding source before most Senators would be comfortable voting for it. It will now have two funding sources: voluntary contributions designated on state tax returns and a registration fee of $350 a year on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers, the same amount in Illinois. (Non-profits 501c3s would pay only $25/year). Currently lobbyists only pay $25 every two years in California, one of the lowest rates in the country.

Lobbyists may not like it, and not surprisingly, the Institute of Governmental Advocates (the lobbyists' lobbyists) is taking an official oppose position to these funding amendments. But the Secretary of State is in charge of registering lobbyists and tracking their activity, so it is reasonable for them to contribute to paying for a system that would allow the fair election of the official that oversees their activities.

How Does It Stand?

Senate President pro Tem Don Perata is a co-author of the bill, and his office has been very helpful about the bill so far. Appropriations Chair Tom Torlakson was a co-author of previous Clean Money bills, as was Senator Gil Cedillo. Four current co-authors are on the Appropriations Committee: Ellen Corbett, Sheila Kuehl, Jenny Oropeza, and Assistant pro Tem Leland Yee. Senator Joe Simitian was an author of a similar Clean Money bill for insurance commissioner, and Mark Ridley-Thomas voted for the previous version of AB 583 in the Assembly.

That leaves only Dean Florez as the Democrat on the committee that has not yet had the chance to show support for Clean Money. Hopefully he will join his colleagues in supporting AB 583 and implementing the California Democratic Party's platform statement that California Democrats will "support and implement clean money legislation at the local, state and federal levels."

Californians can also hope that Republican committee members Sam Aanestad, Roy Ashburn, and Bob Dutton, Dave Cox, and Mark Wyland will vote for AB 583. Clean Money hasn't received much support from California Republican legislators so far, but Republicans in other states have been very supportive. As Republican Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell, who was a leader in passing their new Clean Elections law, said, "By signing this bill into law today, perhaps we can ignite another revolution - we can revolutionize our system of elections and how they are financed".

That sentiment is why Clean Money is so important to politically-aware voters and activists. Today's hearing will be filled with regular people from across the state, with carpools of people driving to the Capitol from Petaluma to the High Sierra and all the way up from Orange County. Clean Money champion and AB 583 author Assemblymember Loni Hancock will be backed up by diverse voters of California from bakers to farmers to real state agents to retired nurses, teachers and engineers. In opposition on the other side will be lined up representatives of the Institute of Governmental Advocates….i.e. the lobbyists.

The battle lines are drawn. Who will win the fight for the first step towards fairer elections in California -- the people or the lobbyists?

You can weigh in yourself by taking action at

Trent Lange is President of the Board of Directors of the California Clean Money Action Fund. He is an expert on analyzing the policies and costs of public financing systems.

See the article on California Progress Report website

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