Campaign reform: Vote yes on Prop. 15
Americans aren't unanimous on much, but they come close on this issue: the deleterious effect of big money on politics and good governance. The latest evidence is a new Quinnipiac poll that finds 79 percent of those surveyed disapprove of January's Supreme Court campaign finance ruling giving corporations, nonprofits and labor unions the all-clear to spend unlimited amounts on individual campaign ads and advocacy.
Why the resounding chorus of public objection to the Court's 5-4 ruling? Because Americans acknowledge that big money buys influence, no matter what politicians might tell us.
In the laudable quest to put individual voters back in the driver's seat, many reformers have championed the merits of public campaign financing. But, given its challenges, is public financing truly a workable solution? One way to find out.
Proposition 15, the June ballot initiative that would reverse the state constitutional ban on public financing of campaigns, takes a unique approach that would allow voters to have a taste before they commit themselves to anything bigger.
Proposition 15 would authorize public financing of just one statewide race, secretary of state, and only for two election cycles, 2014 and 2018. Registered lobbyists would pay most of the financing bill with a $350-per-year fee. If those two campaigns play out well, the Legislature could expand public financing into other races. But we'll at least have some hard evidence of public financing's workability and its effect on the ballot.
We've all seen the consequences of the existing system. Legislators are engaged in perpetual campaigns, with the perpetual attendant pursuit of money. Candidates spend so much time chasing donations, they can't devote sufficient time to ordinary constituents. And as political watchdog groups note with regularity, the correlation between campaign donations and the votes of individual legislators benefiting those benefactors is solid. Vote-buying is an American institution.
As it stands, the constitutional ban on publicly financed campaigns doesn't merely block the practice in gubernatorial and legislative races, it prevents municipalities from exploring the option on a smaller scale. As such, the statewide ban on public financing is a limit on local control. Remove the ban, and cities and counties have the freedom, should they choose to exercise it, to diminish the influence of special-interest money within their boundaries. Kern County voters, having passed Measure K in 2002, have already expressed such concerns.
The Proposition 15 pilot project would work like this: Candidates would be compelled to demonstrate broad support by gathering 7,500 $5 contributions. That would make them eligible for at least $1 million for the primary and $1.3 million for the general election. They could get as much as $4 million for the primary and $5.2 million for the general to match a candidate who declines public financing, or for responses to the attacks of independent groups.
The Legislature would need to come up with other sources of revenue should public financing be expanded to include other races. Sacramento can't simply impose new taxes or write funding into the budget without a two-thirds vote. But the 14 states that provide direct public financing to candidates have figured out ways to pay for it. (Another 10 states, as well as several U.S. cities, have some sort of limited public funding of campaigns.)
Proposition 15 frees up state and local governments to explore public funding of campaigns, and it authorizes a test case so we can see how it works. Big money has played an outsized role in politics (and, as a result, governance) for too long. Public financing may or may not be a real or complete solution, but we'll never know unless we give it a try. Proposition 15 provides that opportunity. It's worth your "yes" vote.
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