It’s no secret that special-interest money has corrupted our political system. Big donors get no-bid contracts and sweetheart deals because politicians know that if they don’t do what their contributors want, they might lose their donations — and the next election. The huge donations also allow incumbents to amass campaign war chests, scaring off other candidates and resulting in fewer people engaged in the political process. Yet despite these well-documented problems, California voters have turned down previous efforts to reform the system. This June, however, good-government advocates hope they can finally convince voters to agree to publicly financed campaigns that would lessen the influence of Big Money.
Proposition 15, also known as the California Fair Elections Act, would set up a test case for publicly financed campaigns — the 2014 race for secretary of state. Candidates who voluntarily agree to the rules of Prop. 15 would not be allowed to raise funds from corporations, wealthy donors, unions, or anyone else, and instead would receive public financing. They also would receive funds to respond to so-called “independent” committees set up by special interests that finance attack ads against them or support their opponents.
The measure is sponsored by state Senator Loni Hancock and backed by numerous good-government groups, including the League of Women Voters and California Common Cause. “The main motivation behind this is that the amount of money in our political process is outrageous,” explained Trent Lange, president of the Clean Money Campaign, a nonprofit that worked closely with Hancock.
What sets Prop. 15 apart from previous reform efforts is its funding mechanism. It would finance the campaign for the secretary of state’s office by levying a $350 annual fee on California lobbyists. There are about 4,800 registered lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers in California, which means the measure would raise nearly $7 million by the 2014 election. Currently, California lobbyists pay only $12.50 a year to register with the state, one of the lowest such fees in the nation.
The idea of forcing lobbyists to pay to help fix California’s broken political system also strikes a populist nerve, tapping into voter anger about the failure of government to solve even our most basic problems. In a recent poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 79 percent of likely voters said that California government is “pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” And according to backers of Prop. 15, an October 2009 survey of likely voters showed the measure leading by a three to one margin.
That would be a huge turnaround from 2006, when Prop. 89, which also would have allowed publicly funded campaigns, garnered just 26 percent of the vote. The big difference was that Prop. 89 would have financed elections through increased taxes on corporations, which led many consumers to worry that the higher business costs would be passed on to them. And Prop. 89 called for publicly financed campaigns for all state offices.
To qualify for financing under Prop. 15, major-party candidates would have to gather signatures and $5 donations from at least 7,500 registered voters. The candidates would be limited to spending only $75,000 from those private donations, and could raise and spend no more private money. They would then receive $1 million in public funds for the primary and $1.3 million for the general election — about the same amount spent by current Secretary of State Debra Bowen in 2006.
The measure also addresses the problems created by so-called “soft-money” groups and by rich candidates who won’t participate in the program. If a “fair-elections” candidate is outspent by a privately financed opponent, or if other groups spend money attacking the candidate or supporting the opponent, then the candidate will receive public matching funds of up to $4 million total for the primary and $5.2 million in the general election. Proponents of the measure don’t expect to break the bank in 2014 because the race for secretary of state doesn’t typically result in huge campaign expenditures.
However, as attractive as the lobbyist fee may be, it also might ultimately derail Prop. 15. Lobbyists argue that it violates their First Amendment guarantee to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” And they may have a point. The nonpartisan Legislative Analysts’ Office warned in 2008 that the lobbying fee might be unconstitutional. Courts in Arizona, Oregon, and Vermont have all struck down similar laws that used lobbying fees to pay for publicly financed campaigns. The courts ruled that such fees could only be used to administer the lobbying registration programs in those states.
The California lobbying trade group, Institute of Governmental Advocates, has already filed suit in both state and federal court to stop Prop. 15. But judges in both courts ruled that the group will have to wait and see if the measure passes to go forward. Thomas Hiltachk, a Sacramento attorney representing the lobbyists, said he will file suit immediately after the June election if Prop. 15 wins.
However, even if the lobbyists get the higher fees invalidated, the ultimate fate of Prop. 15 remains unclear. The courts could keep the rest of the measure intact and require only that the legislature come up with another way to fund it. Or the courts could decide that Prop. 15 would not have passed had it not been for the lobbying fee, and, as a result, it should be thrown out entirely. Either way, there is no doubt that Prop. 15 will prompt a long legal battle after the election if it wins. Which is unfortunate, because it’s past time that we removed the corrupting influence of big donors in our political process.