California campaign finance reform starts with baby steps

By Bill Monning, Commentary

On June 8, California voters will have the opportunity to remove the taint of large campaign contributions from state elections, at least on a trial basis for the secretary of state in 2014 and 2018.

Prop. 15 will present the choice to voters, the outgrowth of legislation introduced by then-assemblymember (now Senator) Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley). I am encouraging a yes on 15 vote as an important step toward long-term campaign finance reform.

Since the 2000 election, campaign contributions to California candidates have exceeded $1 billion! The spectrum of contributors spans the range of businesses, unions, environmental groups, and others who have an interest in California laws and regulations.

At the federal level, the top 13 private health insurance companies contributed over $23 million to congressional candidates in the last nine months of 2009. These contributions were received during the most important health care debate in the nation's recent history. In California, the American Health Insurance Plans' members have contributed more than $280 million to candidates since 2000.

Is there a nexus between contributions and votes? Legally, there can't be. It's illegal for an member of the Legislature or a state office holder to cast a vote or seek to influence a vote in exchange for a campaign contribution.

In practice, however, the current system works to the benefit of the large campaign contributors who gain greater access to elected officials and retain professional lobbyists to promote, oppose and monitor specific legislation. The access is not illegal; rather it is made possible by an allocation of resources not available to most individual voters and taxpayers.

Many grassroots labor, environmental, health, and other advocates retain skilled lobbyists to protect and advance their interests, as do representatives of big business. Under any campaign finance reform system, these same groups will retain their First Amendment right to advocate and lobby for the interests of their members.

If passed into law, Prop. 15's requirements and restrictions will be limited to those Secretary of State candidates who volunteer to take no lobbyist or lobbyist client contributions, and who raise 7,500 individual contributions of $5 each. In exchange, qualified candidates will be eligible to receive $1 million for use in a statewide primary election campaign, and, if successful in the primary, $1.3 million for the general election. The bill provides additional "fair fight funds" if a self-funded candidate spends more than a candidate with the Prop. 15 funds.

The funds wouldn't come from the state's general fund or taxpayer dollars. Instead, Prop. 15 would levy a special license tax on lobbyists, which would pay for those qualified to run, according to the initiative's requirements. Lobbyists argue Prop. 15 inappropriately targets them, but to date have failed to win judicial support for their opposition. It's interesting to note the proposed lobbyist licensing fees are similar to those paid by doctors and lawyers.

Another benefit of the campaign finance reform measure will be to empower non-traditional candidates from minor parties and those who would not otherwise be able to compete in a statewide election. The 7,500 small contributions requirement will weed out aspirants whose experience or organizational skills fall short.

So why change the rules of the game only for secretary of state candidates? Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have passed varying forms of campaign finance reform, most involving some form of public financing. By focusing on a trial program, Californians will be able to determine whether such a pilot program makes sense for other state candidates. The secretary of state is charged with the conduct of elections and is thus one of the most appropriate office holders to establish a new set of campaign contribution standards.

I am one of many members of the Legislature who has endorsed Prop. 15. While some argue that it doesn't go far enough, it offers California voters an opportunity to voice their support for a prudent and experimental reform measure. Support for Prop. 15 on June 8 does not prevent future, more comprehensive initiatives from being introduced. Supporting it will provide an incremental yet historic step in advancing the cause for fundamental campaign finance reform in California.

I hope you'll join me by voting yes on 15 on June 8. And join us this Saturday, April 3, for a Yes on Prop. 15 kick-off rally to be held at 4pm at the Peace Resource Center, 1364 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. The other speakers are 4th District Supervisor Jane Parker and Trent Lange, chair of Californians for Fair Elections.


BILL MONNING (D-Carmel) represents the 27th Assembly District.


See the article on Monterey County Weekly website



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