Campaigns Could Be Publicly Funded

By Edwin Garcia, Times Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO - Voting along a deeply divided partisan line, the state Assembly on Monday approved a measure that would allow candidates for state office to use taxpayer money to fund their campaigns -- cutting out big-bucks special interest donors.

The much debated California Clean Money and Fair Elections Act of 2006, which passed with 47 of 48 Democrats voting in favor -- and no Republicans in support -- would be a voluntary program. But a candidate who chose not to participate and accepted outside donations would almost certainly face scrutiny -- and perhaps voter backlash.

"This is a historic victory in that the state of California has never even debated the merits of a public financing bill previously," said Eric Tang with the California Clean Money Campaign. "I think there's been a huge groundswell demand from the public to do something about the corruption scandals that are crippling our faith in public officials."

The measure, nearly identical to a law in Arizona, next heads to the Senate.

A previous measure failed in the state Legislature for lack of support in 2004, but the new bill, written by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, found renewed interest following the November special election. That election, called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, cost about $40 million in public money and incurred record spending -- as much as $300 million -- by the committees battling over the eight failed ballot measures.

"Polls show that respect for state government has gone down dramatically in the past year," Hancock told her colleagues on the Assembly floor. "Everyone recognizes we have a system in place that brings out the worst in almost everybody that participates in it."

But opponents, even those who favor campaign finance reform, said Hancock's bill raises issues of free speech, and would prompt the spending of public money in controversial ways.

"You identified the problem but you totally missed the mark for the solution," Minority Floor Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, told Hancock.

"A system like this of public financing compels people to support candidates they otherwise would never want to support," said Mark Wyland, R-Vista.

AB583 would provide funding -- estimated at $106 million total the first year -- to all candidates for state office who collect a certain number of $5 donations known as "qualifying contributions." A candidate for Assembly, for example, would need 500 qualifying contributions totaling $2,500, and a candidate for governor would need 25,000 contributions totaling $125,000 to receive public financing for the primary election.

In addition, candidates would be allowed to receive "seed money contributions" of less than $100 from any registered voter for expenses related to the qualifying phase.

Candidates would then receive a set amount of money, depending on the office being sought, which would be a fraction of what it currently costs to run a campaign.

A total of $100,000 would be given to candidates for an Assembly seat; $200,000 for Senate; $250,000 for the state Board of Equalization; $1 million for statewide office except attorney general; $1.5 million for attorney general; and $6 million for governor. The amounts would increase for a contested general election.

Proponents argue that would level the playing field.

The proposed law also would prohibit the participating candidates from receiving private donations from any source other than qualifying contributions.

"If this bill is passed and becomes law -- and it would require a vote of the people," Hancock said, "it will take special interest money out of politics, period."

Proponents of public finance laws in Arizona and Maine applauded the Assembly's vote. If approved, they said, the measure will force politicians to answer to constituents and not the large corporations and political action committees that fuel the vast majority of campaign contributions in California.

Ten of Arizona's 11 statewide elected officials received public financing, as have about half the legislators, said Barbara Lubin, executive director of the Phoenix-based Clean Elections Institute.

The Arizona law, which Lubin said has withstood numerous court challenges, "restores to the average voters not only the ability to run for office but the ability to participate on an equal playing field."

A policy advocate for California Common Cause called the Assembly's 47-26 vote "a great day for reform." Theis Finlev also predicted a "tough debate," in the Senate, but added, "This is the year to pass this."

It's unclear whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would sign the bill into law, but given Monday's partisan vote it's almost certain he will be lobbied by Republicans to veto it. Voters, though, may have the final say: A measure similar to Hancock's bill is being pushed by the California Nurses Association for the November ballot.


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