Give L.A.'s regular voters a bigger voice

By David Donnelly and Trent Lange, Guest Commentary

FBI charges that state Sen. Leland Yee solicited campaign contributions by agreeing to arrange international arms deals are shocking. But the scope of it pales in comparison to the legally allowed fundraising arms race engaged in by almost all candidates. Fortunately, a move to strengthen Los Angeles' public financing system shows a better way.

The Supreme Court's recent McCutcheon v. FEC decision forced the Los Angeles Ethics Commission to announce recently that it must abandon "aggregate contribution limits," or how much money individuals can give to all candidates for city offices combined.

The good news is the commission also urged the City Council to do something that will give everyday Angelinos - those most likely to get drowned out by the McCutcheon decision - a bigger voice in city elections. And it's a proposal the council should adopt, with an important caveat.

In Los Angeles, City Council and mayoral candidates can qualify for matching funds on small donations after raising a threshold amount of money and agreeing to spending limits. Donations up to $250 for City Council candidates and $500 for citywide candidates are matched on a two-to-one basis in the primary, empowering small dollar donors by turning $50 into $150.

This helps, but it's not enough because council candidates are allowed contributions up to $700, and citywide candidates up to $1,300 - well beyond most voters' means. Worse, half of contributions to council candidates come from outside the city. No wonder voter turnout is abysmal - they question who their leaders are actually accountable to.

The commission suggested last week that the matching ratio be upped to six-to-one, mirroring what New York City currently does. That same $50 donation would become $350 for participating candidates. And starting next election, contributions from only city residents will be matched.

One change needed to their proposal is reducing the maximum contribution eligible for matching (say to $150) so that candidates focus more on regular voters than on bigger donors. People who give $500 aren't small donors and shouldn't be rewarded with limited public funds.

New York City's experience shows the importance of these reforms. After their match increased to six-to-one in 2009 for donations up to $175, the average donation for participating candidates dropped by more than one-third. Candidates are more connected to their constituents because they spend less of their time fundraising from special interests, and more time talking to regular voters.

Participatory approaches to campaign finance reform, like Los Angeles' system can be with these reforms, hold the promise to bring more people into politics. Since we're not likely to "get money out of politics," bringing the voters back in is the best answer to a system awash with money.

In Washington, D.C., the Government By the People Act (H.R. 20) in the House and the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 2023) in the Senate take a similar approach and they're supported by several Los Angeles-area elected officials.

The bills work by combining a tax credit on small donations and a six-to-one match on donations of $150 or less, empowering everyday people who can't write big checks, and helping candidates jump off the fundraising treadmill when running for office.

Sen. Barbara Boxer has signed onto the Senate bill and 25 California members of the House delegation have co-sponsored the House version, including Los Angeles Reps. Brad Sherman, Xavier Becerra, Janice Hahn and Henry Waxman.

Just like these members of Congress, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission is taking a proactive stance in the face of our increasingly big money-dominated political system. If the City Council adopts these participatory recommendations, Los Angeles will become one of the leaders in ensuring elections are about people, not big campaign checks. And, importantly, it will do so in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that further places elections into the hands of big-money campaign donors. There's no better time than now to show the country - as well as Congress and the courts - a different path forward.

David Donnelly is the executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, a national organization focused on reforming our country's campaign finance laws. Trent Lange is the president of California Clean Money Campaign, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on solving the problems of big money in California politics.

See the article on Los Angeles Daily News website

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