Money Talks: Public election $$ can make public's voice heard

By Brian Carr, The Loma Prietan, Sierra Club Newsletter

Why support the California Fair Elections Act? Because if we want clean air and water and lawmakers who tackle issues like global warming, we need fair elections.

The California Fair Elections Act (CFEA), on the June 2010 ballot, will establish a pilot program of public campaign funding, starting with candidates for the office of Secretary of State. It would remove existing blanket prohibitions on using public funds for election campaigns, allowing public funding of city or statewide campaigns by legislative action alone and without a public vote.

Many of us see the relationship between big money contributions and issues such as healthcare reform and Wall Street regulation; however, we tend to overlook this impact on environmental issues. Opponents of the CFEA have not been so short-sighted. Consider that since 2000, the oil and gas, electric utility, mining, chemical and auto industries have poured over $300 million into political campaigns. That's about 25 times as much as environmental groups have contributed over the same period. In the 2008 California elections, oil and gas companies, developers, and real estate interests outspent environmental groups by over 30 to 1 according to Fortunately, Sierra Club California, and now our Chapter, are aware of this relationship.

So does public financing of campaigns really work? In addition to our intuitive understanding that "politicians can be bought," data from jurisdictions that have adopted the system say "yes." Maine has had statewide public funding of campaigns since 2000. According to the League of Conservation Voters, Maine legislators who opted for public funding scored nearly twice as high on environmental issues as those with private contributions. As we watch the flood of contributions from interests that oppose global warming initiatives and proponents of "Clean Coal," the connection between campaign funding and the environment becomes too clear to ignore.

With the continuing budget crisis in California and voters' tendency to vote against programs they do not understand, the authors of CFEA decided to start fair elections with the Secretary of State, the office responsible for ensuring the integrity of our elections. Once voters see how it works and understand the real benefits of electing candidates representing the public sector, we can join Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, and expand this idea to other statewide offices and the legislature.

Brian Carr is a Chapter member and a supporter of the California Fair Elections Act.

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