Consider Possibility of Clean Money a Gift

By Loretta Keller, Commentary

IMAGINE what politics would be like if private campaign contributions were disallowed, so that elected officials would owe nothing to the big businesses they're duty bound to regulate. A recent poll by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California shows that 70 percent of the respondents believe the state's political decisions are controlled by special interests and that only 24 percent trust government officials to represent them fairly. Sad to say, they're not all that wrong.

In California alone, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year on special interests, with the result that the average voter either stays away from the polls or votes halfheartedly, believing that his or her voice will be drowned out by the big money that shapes our laws.

But if tacit political bribery were rendered powerless, the people could have the voice we were intended to have, and our representatives could legislate from their minds and hearts rather than thoughts of upcoming elections and the IOUs in their debit columns.

Unfortunately, nothing quite that far-reaching is in the works, but an assemblywoman in the state of California has proposed a giant step in this vital direction.

Last February, Assembly member Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, introduced Assembly Bill 583 - legislation that could severely curtail the practice of political paybacks for large campaign donations. Known as the Clean Money and Fair Elections Act of 2005, it would permit qualified candidates to run for office using only public funds - if they so chose. It would be entirely voluntary.

The bill is expected to be voted on in January, and meanwhile the California Clean Money Campaign (CCMC) is working hard to educate the public about its features.

What we currently have in force is the Political Reform Act of 1974, an initiative measure under which a public officer may not accept public monies to seek elective office. But this act provides for its own amendment by the Legislature with a two-thirds vote of each house, and AB 583 is expected to go to the people as an initiative or referendum.

The Clean Money bill declares that the current campaign finance system "burdens candidates with the excessive rigors of fund raising ... diminishes the free speech rights of nonwealthy voters ...(and) fuels the public perception of corruption at worst and conflict of interest at best."

In order to show that they can win an election, Clean Money candidates must collect a set number of $5 qualifying contributions plus supporting voter signatures in their districts. During a brief "seed money" period, public supporters may also give up to $100 to their favorite candidates.

This accomplished, qualifying candidates receive a Clean Money Debit Card with which to pay all their campaign expenses. The total that each candidate may spend is based on the average dollar amount spent by candidates for that office in recent elections.

The dollar amounts that are available vary with the office being sought as well as the type of election. As the bill is currently written (it may be amended), a candidate for Assembly in a primary election would receive $100,000, and a gubernatorial candidate in a general election might receive $10,000,000.

If such a candidate is outspent by an opponent who is running on private rather than public contributions, though the limits on private donations are lowered in the new bill, the Clean Money candidate would receive matching funds up to a prescribed limit.

Among other groups, the League of Women Voters of California strongly endorses AB 573, but where the public funds will come from hasn't yet been determined. The CCMC proposed that the Clean Money fund receive 2 cents a day for each California resident over the age of 18.

Public financing of elections didn't originate in California. It started in Maine and then Arizona, where it has received overwhelming support from voters and good endorsement from candidates. Many more women and minorities now enjoy public office in those two states than ever before, and legislation is much more in the public interest.

In Arizona, the funds in the state's campaign coffers come from fines - 10 percent is added to speeding tickets and other traffic fines as well as civil and criminal fines, and the extra amount goes toward public campaign financing. Reportedly, it works very well.

Clean Money campaigning is spreading to other states and some cities. The City of Los Angeles is considering it and may come up with a proposal in 90 days. A Pasadena group has discussed it, too.

Where it's in place, candidates may advertise their public funding, whereas privately funded candidates are burdened by having to show the voters that they're not beholden to big donors.

A potential problem - there always are a few - is that in the recent past, the courts equated a campaign contribution with free speech, thus tending to negate its limits. But according to the CCMC, the United States Supreme Court now upholds the constitutionality of voluntary public funding of elections.

So it looks like the way is clear. But whether or not Clean Money actually happens in California, we should consider its possibility a holiday gift.

For further information call (800) 566-3780 or visit the Web site.

Loretta Keller is a freelance writer who lives in Altadena.

See the article on Pasadena Star-News 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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