Bay Area Legislators Float 'Clean Money' Ballot Plan

*Critics call voluntary public campaign financing 'absurd' in face of deficit

By Steve Geissinger, Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO -- Bay Area lawmakers and good-government groups launched a bid Tuesday to pass a ballot measure aimed at cleaning up the runaway political money chase with a proven system that taps taxpayer funds for campaigns.

But the effort to approve a bill putting the Arizona-style, voluntary public-finance proposal on the Nov. 2 statewide ballot was immediately attacked by Republican lawmakers as "absurd" in light of California's deficit.

The "Clean Money and Elections" proposal -- authored by Democratic Assemblywoman Loni Hancock of Berkeley and backed by Democratic Assembly members Gene Mullin of San Mateo and Wilma Chan of Oakland -- could be passed out of the Legislature by majority Democrats alone.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwar-zenegger, who has expressed interest in campaign finance reform, has yet to take a position on the proposal that was aired Tuesday during a news conference and informational legislative hearing.

If the legislative path to the ballot is blocked, government-reform organizations and others said they would collect signatures to place the proposal directly before voters as a constitutional amendment. Groups representing women and minorities said they back the proposal because it would foster greater diversity among officeholders.

Supporters of adding the system to California's existing patchwork of campaign finance laws include the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, the Public Interest Research Group and the Greenlining Institute.

Under the proposal, candidates for legislative or statewide office who raise a minimum amount of "seed money" in small donations and agree to limit their spending could obtain full public financing of their campaigns.

The candidates would receive matching funds to keep pace with non-participating foes who exceed the spending caps and with expenditures by independent groups.

Though court rulings have struck down mandatory spend-ing caps and other aspects of campaign finance reform as conflicting with First Amendment rights, the voluntary "Clean Money and Elections" system has so far withstood legal challenges in Arizona and Maine.

In addition, supporters noted that five of the state's eight largest cities -- including Oakland and San Francisco -- have adopted programs to publicly finance local elections.

"The increasing influence of money and special interests in campaigns is one of the biggest challenges facing our democratic system," said Hancock, the principal author of the statewide proposal. "As time spent on fund raising has increased, the public's opinion of government and confidence in elected officials has plummeted.

"Voter anger with the current system has been fueled by the perception that everything in Sacramento is for sale ... (and) that major contributors have more access to legislators and influence over legislation than ordinary citizens do," she said.

The proposal would provide "the most substantial and comprehensive solution to the influence of money and special interests in politics," Hancock said.

Mullin, who is among the co-authors of the bill, said he was elected to the Assembly after one of the most expensive primaries in state history. Then he joined a Legislature whose members complain that too much of their time is consumed by the necessary quest for campaign donations.

"This is a battle worth waging and a battle worth winning," he said.

Marc Spitzer, a former GOP lawmaker in Arizona, led a parade of speakers from several California and national groups that support the system. Spitzer said candidates of both parties in Arizona have benefited, along with the state as a whole.

Voter turnout has increased, less money has been spent on campaigns and public trust in government has grown, supporters said.

"Ultimately, if we truly want a government by and for the people, our campaigns have to be paid by the people," Hancock said.

Supporters said they are still weighing exact public-finance amounts for various offices and situations, and options for covering the cost, from tax hikes to closing tax loopholes.

Critics attacked the public-finance aspect of the proposal in particular.

"With California's financial crisis, it's absurd to talk about giving tax dollars to politicians for their campaigns," said state Sen. Ross Johnson, R-Irvine.

Johnson authored a ballot measure, approved by voters in 1988, that bans use of taxpayer funds for political campaigns.

"Taxpayer financing of political campaigns would cost tens of millions of dollars and perhaps as much as $100 million per election cycle," he said. "This is money that could be used for police and fire protection, education and transportation.

"Do California taxpayers really want to see their hard-earned tax dollars used for political campaigns? I think the answer is emphatically no," Johnson said.

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at

See the article on Oakland Tribune website

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