Reversing State's 'Pay-to-Play' System

By Linda Suhr

Whether Republican, Democrat, third party or not registered to vote, according to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 78 percent of Californians agree on one thing: Political decisions in the state are controlled by special interests.

And why wouldn't we think that?

After all, former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, raised more than $13 million in special interest money during his first year in office. When California voters became angry with Davis' political paybacks, they recalled him and elected a reputed reformer. Nevertheless, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger collected more than $26 million in his first year in office, doubling Davis' booty. It's not the political party that causes money to flow like the Russian River after a winter storm - it's the system.

What can be done to reverse this "pay-to-play" political system and resurrect representative democracy in California?

A welcome answer can be found within the halls of the state Assembly where legislators are honing the details of a bill that would help curtail the influence of big money on elected officials. The Clean Money and Fair Elections Act, AB 583, will permit qualified candidates to run for office using only public funds.

Those who choose to use clean money would be provided up to $10 million to run for governor, while Assembly candidates would get $150,000 and Senate candidates, $300,000. Candidates could choose to finance their campaigns the traditional way, but clean money candidates would get enough to remain competitive.

The bill was introduced in February by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley and will be voted on in the Elections Committee in January.

Public funding of elections is not a new concept. Maine and Arizona have implemented a similar process with considerable success. In Arizona, public funding is supported by Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.

How is it working? In Arizona in 2002, seven out of nine clean candidates won their elections including governor, secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer. Of the 39 clean candidates elected, 22 were Republicans and 17 were Democrats. Thirty-six percent of the Arizona Legislature is composed of clean officials who are free of ties to big money donors.

In Maine during the 2000 election, private campaign donations were cut in half from those in 1998. The majority of the Legislature used public financing to run for office, and as a result, has enacted meaningful health care and prescription drug legislation.

Earlier this month, Connecticut, a state previously embroiled in political financial scandals, passed public campaign reform legislation. With a Republican governor and a Democratic majority Legislature, Connecticut is not unlike California in its political make-up. Public campaign financing is a concept that is garnering bipartisan support.

Many details, such as how to fund AB583, need to be worked out in the legislative process. California Clean Money Campaign, a grassroots organization that is working hard to educate the public about the bill, proposed that public campaign financing receive the equilavent of $5.50 per year for each California resident. Would it be worthwhile to spend $5.50 per year to release the stranglehold that corporate donors and other special interests have on our elected officials?

In 2001, 73 percent of corporations doing business in California, including 46 corporations with more than $1 billion in receipts, paid just the $800 minimum state franchise tax according to the California Budget Project. Reducing tax shelters and ineffective incentive programs would generate up to $2 billion, as reported by the California Tax Reform Association.

As we watch cuts being made to health care, public services, education and protection of the environment - areas that most Californians want to see supported - special interests wield their influence. The question should not be "How can we afford clean money and fair elections?" but "How can we afford not to have clean money and fair elections?"

Clean-money-elected officials in Arizona and Maine remark about how they now have time to listen and respond to constituents instead of spending so much time fund-raising. Isn't that what we all want? Responsive government, by and for the people?

On Saturday at Oakland City Hall, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock will host a town hall meeting to raise support for AB 583. To find out more about this event and AB 583 or to see if your representatives support the bill, go to

See the article on Santa Rosa Press-Democrat website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

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