California Democratic Leaders Doing Right Thing for Voters as AB 583 Moves to Senate Floor

By Trent Lange, Commentary

As reports come in that lobbyists spent more than $143 million trying to influence legislation in Sacramento in just the first six months of this year, Californians are close to having the opportunity to vote on exploring a much-needed alternative to the way we finance election campaigns.

AB 583, the California Fair Elections Act, championed by Assemblymember Hancock (D-Oakland) should be getting a vote on the Senate floor on Wednesday or Thursday after passing the Appropriations committee 9-6 on a party-line vote. AB 583 would establish a pilot project for voluntary full public financing system for Secretary of State candidates modeled after the systems that have been working in Arizona and Maine for eight years.

A change is desperately needed to restore Californians' confidence in their government. When Californians hear about the hundreds of millions spent on lobbying and the hundreds of millions more given to candidates for their campaigns, many of them become cynical and disengaged.

Public Financing Would Increase Faith in Government

Public financing of campaigns would change all that, because qualified candidates would have the opportunity to run their campaigns entirely with "Fair Elections" public funds instead of private contributions from special interests. Elected officials who used it would be spared the perception that big private campaign donors receive special favors because they wouldn't have any big private donors.

83% of Maine's legislature and 9 out of 11 Arizona statewide officeholders were elected using their public financing systems. It levels the playing field so well that in Arizona after it came into place in 2002 there was a significant difference in spending between candidates in only 2% of races now. That's what people want - elections that are decided by ideas, not money

That may explain why turnout in Arizona increased by 24% after their "Clean Elections" system was put into place and why 85% of Arizona voters familiar with it believe that it is important to Arizona voters. It's also why 230 out of 241 candidates in Connecticut this year pledged to participate in their new Fair Elections program.

Lobbyists Opposed to Exploring Change

So who could oppose exploring a relatively inexpensive pilot project to see if Fair Elections funding works as well in California as it does in other states?

Lobbyists who spent more than $143 million in the first half of this year, that's who. Part of the funding for AB 583 comes by raising registration fees on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers to the same level as in Illinois ($350 a year). So the Institute for Governmental Advocates, the lobbyists' lobbyists, are seeking "mercy" in the words of the Sacramento Bee, apparently unabashed that the $12.50 a year they pay to register now is one of the lowest rates in the country and would represent a tiny fraction of the $143 million+ they take in.

Of course, this inconsequential fee increase isn't the real reason well-heeled lobbyists oppose AB 583. It's the prospect that the pilot project actually could work well enough that voters demand to expand the system -- and then they start losing their "special access" that their clients' millions in campaign contributions give them.

Democratic Leadership Leading

Despite heavy opposition from lobbyists, Democratic leadership in the legislature has been actively working to pass AB 583 as a first step towards fairer elections and helping fulfill their party platform's call for Democrats to support and implement "Clean Money" legislation.

Senate President pro Tem Don Perata, a co-author of AB 583, deserves special praise for helping it move through the process and working with us to find a workable funding source, as do Appropriations Chair Tom Torlakson and Elections Chair Ron Calderon. Senate President pro Tem-elect Darrel Steinberg, a longtime public financing supporter, has taken special interest in the bill and will be its floor jockey.

If it passes on the Senate floor, AB 583 will go back to the Assembly for a hoped-for quick concurrence vote, where Speaker Emeritus Fabian Nunez, Appropriations Chair Mark Leno, and Elections Chair Curren Price already showed vision in pushing through the original pilot project version of AB 583 through and where Speaker Karen Bass has always been a strong supporter of Fair Elections public financing.

Democratic legislative leaders are standing up for real change.

But Will Everybody Follow?

Unfortunately, no members of the Republican caucus have come forward to vote for AB 583 yet, despite the fact that it has strong bipartisan support in other states that have it. We are hopeful that at least some Republican Senators will follow the wishes of their constituents and vote for this critical reform.

The question is whether enough Senators will follow Senators Perata, Steinberg, and Romero to provide the 21 votes needed to buck the lobbyists and the Institute for Governmental Advocates and move AB 583 over to the Assembly on the way to the Governor's desk.

Senators Lou Correa, Mike Machado, Gloria Negrete-McLeod, Dean Florez, and Denise Ducheny are key votes to determining whether the current dysfunctional system of raising big special interest donations remains the only game in town, or whether California voters will get to explore public financing to put the voters completely in charge. We hope that they will join their leaders in doing the right thing for California by supporting this legislation to restore our democracy.

More information about AB 583 can be found on

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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