Only Fair Elections can fix our broken system

By Trent Lange, Commentary

The sharp rejection of five out of six measures from the May 19 ballot have sparked a debate about the state budget mess. But there's no question that the nearly 4 out of 5 registered voters who didn't think the election was worth their participation were sending a message: Voters are so frustrated with business as usual in Sacramento that too many have lost faith in the democratic process altogether.

That's because despite a record breaking budget crisis, startling job losses and a desperate lack of health care across the state, many Californians believe our elected leaders aren't squarely focused on solving the problems that affect our lives. There's good reason for their obvious dissatisfaction. Over the last eight years, while California's problems have gone from bad to worse, California officials and candidates have been busy raising more than $1 billion from political donors, according to a recent report from the Fair Political Practices Commission.

It's obscene, but perfectly legal. Under our current money-driven system, elected leaders in Sacramento are forced to spend countless hours dialing for dollars when they should be addressing the challenges we're up against. The pressure to raise money too often overwhelms their ability to do the job voters elected them to do, tainting the policy-making process.

The California Clean Money Campaign sponsored the California Fair Elections Act (AB 583) with the simple notion that Legislators should be accountable to the voters, not donors. Authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland and signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, the initiative will appear on the June 2010 ballot. The California Fair Elections Act would establish a voluntary pilot project for California's Secretary of State races in 2014 and 2018, allowing candidates to qualify for public financing if they agree to strict spending prohibitions and show they have a broad base of support by raising a large number of $5 contributions from Californians. The pilot program would be funded primarily by fees on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers, with no taxpayer dollars going to candidates.

The California Fair Elections Act is based on proven and successful election reforms in seven states and two cities. Nearly 400 candidates were elected using only fair elections funding in their 2008 campaigns, and the programs enjoy popular support across party lines. Elections in those states are far more competitive: Unlike California, where the median winning candidate outspent the median losing candidate in 2008 by a startling 28-1, public financing allowing challengers in those states to compete on a level playing field, so that elections are about ideas, not money.

From finding real solutions to the state's budget mess to creating jobs to ensuring affordable health care and addressing climate change, our problems are too big to have our leaders' focused on fundraising. The California Fair Elections Act represents the change voters want and the reform California needs.

Trent Lange is the president of the California Clean Money Campaign.

See the article on Pasadena Star-News website

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