Shut the Political Tollbooth
California needs public financing of elections.
Whatever happened to the "terminator" of special interests
"Dirty money," Arnold Schwarzenegger called big campaign
contributions during his successful campaign for governor
in the 2003 recall election: "The people of this state do
not trust their government. They feel it is corrupted by
dirty money, closed doors and back-room dealing." He was
right, and he vowed to be different, scorning the "special
interests" that give millions to state candidates in
"Game over," he declared. Even the skeptics who rolled
their eyes wished it were true.
Today, the game is still on. Schwarzenegger is California's
champion campaign fundraiser and has pushed the art to a
new level. He has collected tens of millions not just for
his own political treasure box but to support issues he
wants to put on the ballot.
The governor has whittled down his definition of "special
interests" to entities with which he has to bargain
directly, primarily public employee unions and
casino-operating Indian tribes. Now, without any sense of
contradiction, he collects money from investors, real
estate interests, developers and companies in the
entertainment, high-tech, healthcare, agriculture and
insurance industries. Even if much of the money goes to
ballot measures that might be meritorious, funneling it
through Schwarzenegger perpetuates the widespread belief,
if not the reality, of a state capital controlled by big
contributors. Schwarzenegger is keen to make the state
friendlier to business, so his year-end vetoes of all 10
bills designated by the California Chamber of Commerce as
"job-killers" might have happened even if he hadn't raised
a dime from any business group. But why does the governor
allow himself to be perceived as being in debt to
contributors, raising questions about his motivation?
In 2003, a series of Times editorials described the
problems that have paralyzed government in California and
recommended steps to restore its effectiveness.
Schwarzenegger has proposed one of them: an independent
panel to draw up more competitive electoral districts.
Freeing elected officials from the campaign financing
tollbooth is necessary to restore an effective Legislature
and untainted statewide offices, including that of
Schwarzenegger identified the problem during his campaign
when he said, "Any of those kinds of real big, powerful
special interests, if you take money from them, you owe
Schwarzenegger has proposed banning fundraising
while the Legislature is considering the state budget, from
January through June. But most legislators have little
effect on the budget.
To see the real giving and getting, visit Sacramento any
August, during the final weeks of the legislative session.
It's a frantic period when bills fly back and forth from
Senate to Assembly, are heard in 30 seconds in a committee
meeting in a back room or rewritten with a lobbyist sending
"suggested language" or "technical amendments" to a
At the same time, legislators are just as frantic about
holding fundraising events. Restaurants make out like
bandits. Last August, as lawmakers were deciding on many of
the most critical bills of the session, the officials
picked up more than $2 million from interests including
drug companies, auto dealers and insurers, all with a stake
in the action beneath the Capitol dome at that moment.
Lobbyists ran from event to event, making certain
recipients were aware who was delivering the checks from
their clients, as chronicled by Times reporters Dan Morain
and Robert Salladay. In the old days, the legislators would
at least hold a sit-down meal, with speeches. That practice
fell victim to night sessions as the Legislature scrambled
to clear its clogged calendar of bills. Drop-by breakfasts
became popular. Now even the pretense of fellowship is
stripped away. As Salladay reported, Assemblyman Marco
Firebaugh (D-Los Angeles) held what was in effect a
$1,000-a-person, drive-by fundraiser. "A breakfast basket
will be provided for those of you on the run," the
Last August, Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando)
was pushing a bill to give auto purchasers a three-day
period in which they could return a car to the dealer. As
the bill moved along, dealers' representatives distributed
$28,050 in contributions to legislators who voted against
the bill or abstained from voting. Afterward, one of the
lobbyists had the gall to say, "We don't base contributions
Increasingly, legislators simply don't vote on any issue
that might offend a donor. This is one reason the state's
legislative process has almost ground to a halt.
California needs the political version of
electroshock therapy. Forget half-measures. The cure is
voluntary public financing of election campaigns, and it's
not a utopian fantasy. Arizona has done it, and it works,
despite constant efforts by those same special interests to
tear it down. Maine has done it as well, with less fuss.
Even Los Angeles has limited public financing. If Arizona's
experience is a guide, the statewide result would be
cheaper, shorter, more-focused campaigns by less-beholden
When Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano took office in 2003, the
state's voters, she said, had their doubts about "whether
Arizona â€" and in particular Arizona state
government â€" could do anything right."
In fact, it could, and it did. Addressing the Legislature
last year, the governor, a Democrat, cited a balanced
budget and issues solved "on a remarkable note of
bipartisanship." Arizona had emerged from a swamp of
corruption â€" since 1988, one governor has
been impeached and another resigned in disgrace
â€" to become an effectively run state. One
reason was the conversion, beginning in 2002, to voluntary
public financing of election campaigns. Arizona did it
through an initiative petition campaign sponsored by the
League of Women Voters and other reform groups. Candidates
qualify for public financing by raising seed money in $5
chunks. Qualifiers get up to $430,000 to run for governor
in the primary and $645,224 in the general election.
Nothing keeps candidates from running the old way in
Arizona, and we would oppose on constitutional grounds any
proposals that would limit candidates' ability to raise
private money or spend their own fortunes running for
office. In Arizona, when candidates raise more than the
base amount given a publicly funded opponent, the state
rightly matches the excess amount up to a fairly high
In 2002, these "clean money" candidates won seven of nine
statewide offices, including governor, attorney general,
treasurer and secretary of state. By this year, publicly
financed candidates had won more than half of the
legislative seats at stake, and the percentage is expected
to keep rising. More candidates are running and more
elections are contested. More people are voting.
If California's Legislature functioned better, there would
be fewer ballot initiatives and better legislative
compromises. Schwarzenegger could mothball some of his
constant threats to "take it to the people" and would look
cleaner himself, with less money flowing into his pet
The availability of public campaign funding won't
make politics perfect, in part because California's special
interests have taken over the ballot initiative process.
There will always be independent campaign spending. Some
critics are certain to argue that California's size makes
it different, that such reforms are unmanageable.
"I don't follow that logic," Arizona Democratic Party
Chairman Jim Pederson said. There's no reason it wouldn't
work in California. Both states have the same basic
Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) sponsored a clean
money bill in the last Legislature and is working with
Common Cause and other reform groups on a new measure this
year. Last year's proposal would have provided up to
$150,000 for an Assembly candidate in the general election
and $10 million for governor.
One source of funding is fines levied for violation of
campaign finance laws. Another is a portion of civil or
criminal fines. The public would have to foot part of the
bill through some other levy, as Arizona does, or through
the general fund, but the total outlay would work out to
about a penny a day for each Californian of voting age.
The state's budget crisis and the need to reform how
districts are drawn come first, but Schwarzenegger should
lay groundwork. No politician can afford to unilaterally
step off the cash merry-go-round that exists today.
Schwarzenegger, able to act alone, has a unique opportunity
to pull the plug on the whole special interest amusement
Consider the value of having officeholders beholden to
actual voters. That's priceless. Why wait?
See the article on Los Angeles Times website