Shut the Political Tollbooth

*California needs public financing of elections.


Whatever happened to the "terminator" of special interests in Sacramento?

"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 election years.

"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 governor.

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 them something."

Money Talks

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 member.

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 invitation read.

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 on bills."

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.

The Cure

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 politicians.

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 limit.

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 causes.

Faulty Arguments

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 political structure.

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 park.

Consider the value of having officeholders beholden to actual voters. That's priceless. Why wait?

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

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