Janis R. Hirohama: Fair Elections Act is first step from abyss

By Janis R. Hirohama, Commentary

Recent polls tell us that the Legislature's and governor's approval ratings are at record lows, but we don't need surveys to tell us that California has increasingly become a state that fails to represent the will of our people. We see it every day in our crumbling infrastructure, our failing schools and our packed emergency rooms.

And now Sacramento has passed a budget that will put the California Dream further out of reach for a large swath of Californians.

With the nation facing its deepest recession in decades, it was inevitable that our state would be forced to make painful choices to balance the budget. But the budget passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor is nothing short of disastrous, with average Californians left to shoulder most of the burden.

We've been handed a budget of cuts, borrowing and accounting gimmicks. This latest budget will decimate our safety net by making massive cuts to vitally important health and human services programs, and our public schools and colleges - the building blocks of California's golden age of prosperity - will be gutted. We've mortgaged our future.

An antiquated requirement for a two-thirds supermajority vote in the Legislature to pass a budget is partially responsible for bringing California to this point. This requirement - which only two other states have - allows a small minority of lawmakers to dictate the terms of the debate. It leads to budget gridlock. And it gives special interests the ability to co-opt the public interest by influencing just a small fraction of legislators.

But this broken budget process is merely a symptom of a broader problem. We need change in Sacramento.

The League of Women Voters, one of the state's oldest government reform organizations, has long advocated eliminating the outdated two-thirds vote requirement. And we will continue to champion sensible reforms such as the California Fair Elections Act, which will appear on the June 2010 ballot to reduce the influence of the special interests that use money to buy power in Sacramento.

Our current campaign finance system forces even the most well-intentioned elected officials to spend far too much of their time raising money from wealthy private donors and corporate interests, to the detriment of good public policy. At the conclusion of the legislative session this August - the very same time the fate of hundreds of bills will be decided in Sacramento - the money-raising frenzy will again kick into high gear.

If anything positive can come from this most recent budget fiasco, it's the growing awareness by Californians of the need for structural reform in the way our government operates.

Californians know the current campaign finance system doesn't have enough safeguards against the outsize influence of special interests, and the dysfunctional budget just passed in Sacramento gives us all the more reason to do something about it. We must start by passing the California Fair Elections Act in June 2010.

The California Fair Elections Act is based on the simple notion that elected officials should be accountable to the voters, not donors. Authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the initiative would establish a voluntary pilot project that allows candidates running for California secretary of state in 2014 and 2018 to qualify for public financing if they agree to strict spending prohibitions and can show they have a broad base of support by raising a large number of $5 contributions.

The 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 represents the kind of change our state needs and voters want. It is an important first step toward breaking the toxic tie between campaign cash and public policy.

Ultimately, by implementing a fair elections system we can help ensure that California gets a government made up of public-spirited lawmakers who are looking out for the interests of their constituents rather than the interests of their donors - in short, the government that California deserves.

Janis R. Hirohama is president of the League of Women Voters of California, a nonpartisan political organization.

See the article on Sacramento Bee website

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