California Public Funding Passes 1st Hurdle

By Richard Winger

On April 21, AB 2949 passed the California Assembly Elections Committee. It creates public funding for state office candidates who receive a certain number of $5 contributions.

Unlike the other states with such "Clean Elections" public financing, the California bill abandons the principle of neutrality. Candidates who are members of parties that polled at least 10% of the vote for any statewide office at the last election would automatically get twice as much public funding. In the other "Clean Elections" states (Maine, Arizona and Vermont), the law does not discriminate by the candidate's party.

Independent candidates who receive the required number of $5 contributions would not receive any funding until the general election is over; and they would receive the money only if they had polled 5% of the vote.

Members of parties that had polled 10% of the vote in the last election for any statewide office would need $5 from at least 500 persons who live in the candidate's district, if they were running for Assembly. For State Senate, they would need such contributions from 1,000 residents; for Governor, 15,000 contributions; for other statewide office, 7,500.

Members of parties that had polled 3% but less than 10% for any statewide office in the last election would need half as many contributors, and would receive one-half as much public funding for the general election, and one-fifth as much for the primary. Independents would be treated like members of these parties.

Recipients of public funding would be required to participate in two debates in the general election, and would receive a free statement in the Voters Handbook. Other candidates would not necessarily be invited into these debates, and would be required to pay for a statement in the Voters' Handbook.

Write-in candidates at primaries could qualify; but write-in candidates at the general election could not.

Absurd Results

AB 2949, if it had been in existence in the past, would have lead to these absurd results:

1914: the Progressive nominee for Governor of California, Hiram Johnson, defeated his Republican, Democratic, Socialist and Prohibition Party opponents, and won the election. But under AB 2949, Johnson could not have received any public funding, whereas his Republican, Democratic and Socialist opponent would each have received $10,000,000 for the general election (assuming each of those candidates had been able to get $5 contributions from 15,000 individuals). The Prohibition Party nominee would have received $5,000,000 (again assuming that he could have raised $5 from each of 15,000 people).

The reason Hiram Johnson would not have been able to qualify for public funding in 1914 is that the Progressive Party had not existed in California in 1912. By contrast, the Democratic, Republican and Socialist Parties had, and all of them had polled over 10% for president in 1912; also the Prohibition Party had polled over 3% for president in California in 1912.

Thus, the person who actually won the general election in 1914 would have been excluded from all public funding, and been excluded from debates, and would not have been given a free statement in the Voters' Handbook...yet four of his opponents would have had those advantages.

1986: Quentin Kopp was elected to the State Senate as an independent candidate. The results were Kopp 46.9%; the Democratic nominee 45.5%; the Republican nominee 7.6%. If AB 2949 had been in effect, no matter how many $5 contributions Kopp had received during the campaign, he would have received no public funding, until after the election was over. Yet, his two major party general election opponents would have each received $300,000 for the general election (assuming they had each received $5 from 1,000 residents).

1990, 1994: repeats of 1986. Kopp was re-elected, but under AB2949, he could not have received any funding until after the election, no matter how many contributors he had. But his Republican opponents, who received 9.3% of the vote in 1990, and 14.4% in 1994, would have received $300,000 if they had the donations.

1992: Lucy Killea was elected as an independent to the State Senate with 60.4%. She could not have received any public funding until after the election, whereas her Republican opponent, an incumbent legislator, would have received $300,000. Her Libertarian and Peace & Freedom opponents would each have received $150,000 each (since both those parties had polled over 3% in 1990 for a statewide office), presuming that each of them could have received $5 from each of 500 residents.

1992: no Green candidate could have received any public funding, since the Green Party hadn't been on the ballot in 1990. By contrast, Libertarian and Peace & Freedom members would have been eligible for some public funding (if their nominees had enough contributors). Yet the most successful minor party nominee for state office in 1992 was a Green (the Green in the 63rd Assembly district polled 12.7% in a race against a Democrat and a Republican).

1994: again, no Green candidate could have received any public funding, since the Green Party hadn't run any statewide candidates in 1992. But the American Independent and Peace & Freedom Parties each would have been eligible, if their nominees received enough contributions.

1996: Dominic Cortese, a sitting legislator who was the Reform Party nominee for State Senate, could not have received any public funding since the Reform Party was new, but his Libertarian opponent might have.

1999: a Green was actually elected to the legislature, but if AB 2949 had been in effect, her only opponent in the run-off would have had $300,000; she would have had $150,000.

If the bill is signed into law, the voters will vote on it in November 2004.

See the article on Ballot Access News website

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