'Clean Money' Hits Council's Nerve

*Campaign system could cost city $9 million a year, require tax

By Kerry Cavanaugh, Staff Writer

Reforming citywide election campaigns to a publicly funded "clean money" system could cost Los Angeles around $9 million a year and would likely require a special tax on residents, city leaders acknowledged Wednesday.

As the City Council held its first major public debate on the issue that it hopes will restore trust in City Hall, members bristled at the implication that their campaigns are "unclean" because they solicit private donations.

"I get upset when you talk about clean money. That means you're dirty because you've been a part of this ...," said Councilman Tom LaBonge. "You do have to go out and get supporters, and supporters have to make donations, and you report those donations, but you always have to serve the people in the best of their interests."

The council quickly moved to rename the concept "full public financing" but the suggestion that taxpayer dollars be used for the effort also drew sharp criticism from some members.

"We're going to say to voters, `We're going to tax some of you so someone can run for office?"' asked West Valley Councilman Dennis Zine. "The San Fernando Valley would go ballistic."

Proponents, however, said voters are so tired of the current system they might be willing to pay up - perhaps with a tax or by adding a surcharge on certain fines.

"Give the voters a choice. People should not be afraid to have the debate. The public is so cynical about elections and a lot of people are discouraged from running right now," Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said. Greuel, along with council President Eric Garcetti and Councilman Bill Rosendahl, has led the effort for publicly financed campaigns.

After holding several town-hall meetings across the city this year, the council members said they believe there is a strong demand for a clean campaign system.

The city's efforts are among clean-money campaigns gaining momentum across the nation as officials seek to restore public trust in politicians and reduce the influence of special-interest donors and lobbyists, such as Jack Abramoff who admitted corrupting federal government officials.

In Los Angeles, former City Councilman Martin Ludlow has pleaded guilty to felony charges of violating campaign-finance laws. And former Mayor James Hahn's administration had been under criminal investigation for allegations that companies were pressured to make campaign contributions to get city business.

University of Southern California law professor Elizabeth Garrett said voters in other states, including Arizona and Maine, have been willing to spend public dollars to fund campaigns.

But it's unclear whether Angelenos will want to make that commitment.

"A lot depends on how much they are frustrated with the current system and how much they believe the current system is broken," Garrett said. "At a certain point voters get fed up and want to try something new."

Jon Coupal, with the watchdog group Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, believes voters already feel overtaxed.

He notes voters recently rejected proposals to raise taxes to fund universal preschool and for a library bond measure.

"Those are far more sympathetic causes than establishing a system where public money is handed over to politicians for their campaigns," he said.

He suspects that residents would more quickly support full and immediate disclosure of all campaign contributions, and heavy penalties for violators - all which wouldn't cost taxpayers.

Los Angeles has offered some limited public financing for candidates since 1990 and about 70 percent of those elected to office have taken advantage of the program.

The city now budgets about $2.6 million each year for funding assistance.

The current proposal is still being developed, but it would provide candidates all the money needed to run their campaigns. In exchange, candidates would raise a small amount of seed money to qualify, then limit their spending.

The program would be voluntary, raising concern among some council members that a rich candidate could still outspend the public financing system.

Plus, the program wouldn't address large independent expenditures, made on behalf of a candidate, that often skirt campaign-finance rules.

Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller said full public financing of campaigns would cost about $9 million per year and require a general or special tax.

However, California Clean Money Campaign Executive Director Susan Lerner said the CLA's estimate was conservative and didn't fully investigate using surcharges on fines or tickets to raise money.

The City Council directed the CLA, City Ethics Commission and city attorney to prepare a detailed proposal for publicly funded campaigns, including how to pay for them.

Any change to the city's current campaign-finance system would require a public vote and a change to the City Charter.

City officials are hoping to put a clean-money proposal to voters in March.

A similar measure calling for public financing of state campaigns has qualified for the November ballot.

See the article on Los Angeles Daily News website

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