Money Talks, But Clean Money Walks

* and leads to good government

By David D. Schmidt, St. Ignatius College Prep Genesis

What if they gave an election that money can't buy? It's a matter of life and death. About 7 million Californians have no health insurance. For most, it's not a choice: They can't afford it. So they avoid getting medical care until it's too late. And thousands needlessly die from preventable illnesses. People ask why the U.S., alone among the world's developed nations, fails to provide health care for everyone.

It's a long story, but the root cause, nationally and in Sacramento, is political: campaign contributions from hospitals, HMOs and drug companies.

For decades, they have beaten back all attempts to pass universal health care laws. Over the last three years, as the legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger have gotten closer to passing one - and possibly passed it by the time you read this - health industry lobbyists have funneled $2.25 million in contributions to legislators and campaign committees controlled by the Governor. They've strategically directed the largest amounts to the Governor and legislative leaders, who are in the driver's seat on negotiating the details.

The result, say many health care advocates, is a bill that's "a license to gouge," because it has no limits on what HMOs can charge, while lowincome people will be forced to buy inadequate coverage that doesn't include preventive care.

But the health care industry is far from the biggest political campaign spender. That distinction goes to energy companies, whose windfall profits and environmental impacts, like global warming, make the HMOs look small by comparison. See the pattern?

If thousands of new homes are built on below-sea-level islands surrounded by aging, crumbling levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, when the levees inevitably fail, people will die. Adam Mendelsohn, Governor Schwarzenegger's communications director, said in June that although the Governor wants flood-safe homes, he does not want to shut down construction, and "everything is being debated." And the Sacramento Bee reported that "any bill [on new homes in flood zones] is likely to face fierce opposition from major developers, who also happen to be big donors to legislators' coffers."

The Bee neglected to mention that land developers were also big donors to Schwarzenegger, as well as his Democratic rival in the 2006 election.

And so they all fiddle as housing tracts are built in flood zones. This is typical of how big money contributors thwart the public interest on a daily basis at all levels of government. As Gov. Schwarzenegger himself famously said during the 2003 recall campaign, "The special interests have a stranglehold on Sacramento. Here's how it works: The money comes in. The favors go out. The people lose." Most people know this instinctively, but now there's proof.* Yet even professional politicos like those who discussed the problem in Genesis V last year, can't seem to come up with a solution. But there is one, and it's just across California's southeast border - in Arizona.

In the 2006 election in Arizona, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor received equal amounts of campaign funding from the state. To get the money, they had to collect $5 from each of more than 4,000 voters, and agree to take no large contributions. With equal spending, it was a fair election, and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano (Santa Clara University valedictorian, Class of '79) won re-election by a wide margin. It was her second gubernatorial victory using "Clean Money" public financing.

Let me make this perfectly clear: Both the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, most statewide offices and half the Arizona legislature, took no large contributions from any person, group, or corporation. None. Maine has a similar Clean Money system that's been working since 2000. Once elected, Clean Money candidates don't have to jump when big money interests call in seeking favors, because they don't need and don't take their money. The promise of democracy - that each of our votes counts equally, regardless of our financial wealth - is finally being fulfilled.

Campaign-contributing lobby groups are no longer the puppetmasters of politics in Arizona and Maine. Most candidates don't take their money. And when they do find a politician that accepts their money - since public financing is voluntary for candidates - it can backfire: One privately-funded candidate in Arizona had President Bush fly in for a fundraising event. Once the take was tallied up, the public-financed opposing candidate received dollar-for-dollar matching funds for the full amount raised at the event. The President might as well have stayed home with Laura and their dog, Barney

Clean Money levels the playing field thanks to the matching funds provision: When a privately-funded candidate exceeds the public-financed candidate's grant from the state, the public-financed candidate gets matching funds. The campaign becomes a contest of ideas rather than a race for the most money.

Public-funded candidates and elected officials spend their time meeting with voters rather than dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers with high-rollers. And since they're not fundraising all the time, they actually have time to spend with their families, something you rarely find in California's superheated political fundraising environment.

The Maine and Arizona Clean Money campaign financing laws were passed by the voters in 1996 and 1998, respectively. And Connecticut's Republican Governor Jodi Rell signed a Clean Money campaign financing law that is taking effect this year. Similar laws are being debated in many other states, in Congress, and in the current Presidential campaign.

In California, the small, scrappy non-profit California Clean Money Campaign (www.caclean.org) has been working with volunteers throughout the state to build support for Berkeley Assemblymember Loni Hancock's AB 583, cosponsored by San Francisco's Mark Leno, State Senator Carole Migden and many others. The bill passed the Assembly in 2007 and is currently being considered in the Senate. AB 583 would give Clean Money a test drive in California by using public campaign financing just once for the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, as well as campaigns in one Assembly district and one Senate district.

To qualify for Clean Money in the California gubernatorial race, a candidate would have to get $5 contributions from 25,000 people. Senate candidates would have to get at least $5 from 1,000 district residents, and Assembly hopefuls would need $5 from 500 residents. Total spending would be capped at $3.65 per year for every adult California citizen, less than 0.1 percent of the state budget. Matching funds would not be unlimited, but are high enough to have equalized campaign spending in 98 percent of the comparable races from 2002 to 2006.

While AB583 is still being debated, Clean Money's success is proven by the last four statewide elections in Arizona and Maine, as well as the experience of every parent who has ever reared a child.

Why parents? Every parent knows that if a child gets a reward for bad behavior, that behavior will never end. Similarly, after "the money comes in" to elected officials and "the favors go out," even more money comes in, reinforcing the bad behavior. Clean Money, in stark contrast, rewards candidates who do the right thing - refusing all money from big campaign contributors, who are usually seeking favors in return.

If we want government that's responsive to the voters, not big money contributors, we have to start rewarding good behavior, not bad. Clean Money does that, at a cost of less than $4 a year for each of us. Let's give it a try in California. It's time to have elections that money can't buy. We can start by asking our Senators and Gov. Schwarzenegger to pass AB 583. v California Clean Money Campaign has been working with volunteers throughout the state to build support for Berkeley Assemblymember Loni Hancock's AB 583.



David D. Schmidt has volunteered on political campaigns in California and Washington, D.C., since 1974. He is the author of Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution (Temple University Press, 1989) and the forthcoming Secrets of the San Francisco Bay Area's Environmental History (University of California Press, 2008).


*The non-partisan, Berkeley-based MAPLight.org (Money And Politics: Illuminating the Connection) analyzes campaign contributions and how legislators vote in Sacramento and in Congress, providing an unprecedented window into the connections. Their latest study, published in October 2007, showed that on five of seven key healthcare bills, California legislators' votes correlated closely with the source of their campaign contributions.


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