California Clean Money Campaign Aims to Take Stain Out of Politics

By Trent Lange, California Clean Money Campaign

Environmentalists constantly fight losing battles against developers and corporations that contribute millions of dollars to political campaigns. Environmentally friendly candidates rarely have enough money to compete against corporate-backed candidates. But there’s a way to change all that. Clean Money public financing of elections, which has been proven in other states to end the domination of campaigns by private money, could finally put the environment on an equal footing. A broad coalition including the Sierra Club is working to bring it to California.

The problem of money in politics affects the environment at all levels of government. At the federal level, Congress and the Bush administration have given priority to energy, logging, and other industries over the environment. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise since the oil and gas industries alone have given over $140 million to federal candidates’ campaigns since 1994.

Campaign contributions also have an insidious effect on environmental policies at the state level. As just one of countless examples, gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis said in 1998 that he would ensure that “all old-growth trees are spared from the lumberjack’s ax.†Alas, he received $249,000 from logging companies in 1999 and 2000â€"and then appointed three industry-friendly regulators to the California Board of Forestry. Needless to say, our last old-growth trees are still falling. Last August, SB 754, which would have banned cutting of many old-growth trees, died on the Assembly floor after the California Forestry Association PAC donated more than $100,000 to legislators and the state political parties this election cycle alone.

And don’t think the local level is any better. The Los Angeles County Supervisors last year approved a 22,000-home development at Newhall Ranch around the last pristine river in Los Angeles County. Developers and real estate companies donated more than $280,000 to the supervisors’ political campaigns between 2000 and 2002. Coincidence, or not? How fair of a hearing do you think the environment will get when the supervisors vote on the even more massive proposed developments at Tejon Ranch?

How it works

Clean Money public financing, which provides public funding to candidates who reject private money, is the solution. It has been working in Arizona and Maine for six years with inspiring results.

Clean Money provides competitive amounts of public campaign funds to candidates who voluntarily choose to participate. To qualify for funding, candidates must show a broad base of support by gathering a specified number of $5 contributions and signatures, agree to strict spending limits, and forego any private fundraising. In cases where non-participating candidates or attack ads by outside groups exceed Clean Money expenditure limits, additional public funds are provided to Clean Money candidates to respond.

These innovative features address many of the ills of today’s out-of-control campaign finance system. Rather than spending all their time fundraising, candidates actually get to spend their time talking to voters. Once elected, officeholders have no strings attached and can more easily resist pressure to vote for policies backed by big money contributors. And perhaps most importantly, more talented people, including strong environmental candidates who aren’t wealthy or don’t want to accept special interest money, can afford to run for office.

Where it works

Arizona and Maine’s experiences prove it works. Voters’ choices increased, as more qualified candidates, especially women and minorities, were able to run for office. Clean Money candidates now hold 10 out of 11 statewide offices in Arizona, including the governor’s office. In Maine, 55 percent of the legislators in Maine’s House of Representatives and 77 percent of its Senate were elected as Clean Money candidates.

The voters love it. 67 percent of Arizonans support their Clean Elections system. Voter turnout increased by 20 percent, and their confidence in their government increased by 12 percent. And it should be no surprise that legislators elected with Clean Money funding in both Arizona and Maine have better environmental voting records than do legislators elected with private money.

There is now a growing coalition of groups that’s working to bring Clean Money here. Sierra Club California strongly endorses Clean Money because, as Bill Magavern, its senior legislative representative, said: “Clean Money would make it infinitely easier to pass the good environmental laws that Californians want because we wouldn’t always have to try to convince legislators to vote against their polluter and developer donors.â€

With the support of volunteers and groups across the state, a Clean Money bill made it further in the state Assembly last year than any public financing bill in California in years. A Clean Money bill will be introduced in the next couple of months starting with an even bigger base of support. But we’ll need the help of other Californians like you who want to end politics as usual.

Visit to sign the petition demanding that our elected officials support a Clean Money system.

Trent Lange is vice-president of the board of directors of the California Clean Money Campaign and a longtime member of the Angeles Chapter.

See the article on Southern Sierran website

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