Reformer Calls For New Limits on Elections

*Writer of landmark act urges public funding, addition of criminal penalties.

By Alexa H. Bluth, Bee Capitol Bureau

Bob Stern, one of the architects of the state's Political Reform Act, said Tuesday that he believes that public financing of elections is the next major change needed to improve elections in California.

Stern, now president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, was in Sacramento to testify at the Capitol in favor of AB 583, a measure by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, that would provide public money to candidates for state office.

While Stern admitted that he thinks the bill he helped draft is "dead" this year because of budget constraints facing the state, he said that California must follow the lead of Maine and Arizona to decrease the influence of special interests.

"In my view, the most important area is public financing, of all the reforms that are needed," Stern said Tuesday in an interview with The Bee Capitol Bureau on a wide range of campaign finance topics. "There would be more competitive elections, there would be less influence from special interests. ... It would make a major difference in the way campaigns are run and the way government is perceived."

A similar measure died in legislative committee last year.

The measure, which Stern estimates would cost the state roughly $70 million a year, would allow candidates to pledge not to collect private donations and instead to receive a certain amount of state money to finance their campaigns.

The Assembly's elections and redistricting committee postponed a vote on the measure until next week.

Stern, former general counsel to the Fair Political Practices Commission, said the bill, which would also lower the amount that candidates who opt against using public financing can collect per donor, would carry a criminal penalty.

That is something he said he believes the current campaign system in California lacks, because the public shame of a civil fine, in his opinion, has not sufficed as a deterrent for some to repeatedly ignore campaign finance laws.

The Hancock measure would sentence anyone found to be criminally in violation of the bill to one day and one night in jail.

"I thought the embarrassment of being fined by the FPPC, people would feel that so much that they wouldn't violate the law again," Stern said. "I was wrong."

Meanwhile, Stern also said that he believes that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's fundraising to push his initiative agenda could ultimately harm his image with voters.

"It really affects the public perception ... and it's going to bring him down probably the way it brought Gray Davis down if he's not careful about it," Stern said. "People are going to start linking the contributions to his positions, and when they start doing that, then the voters will start to get much more cynical."

But Stern said some donors have a different reason to contribute to Schwarzenegger than they did for Davis.

"The big difference is that people want to be with this governor," Stern said. "They really want to be around him, and they'll pay money to shake hands with him."

Stern also said that California has "too many elections," and said he keeps track each campaign of the number of decisions that he, as a voter, must make.

"One year," he said, "I had 100 decisions to make on my ballot."

See the article on Sacramento Bee website

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