Public Financing Could End Pay to Play

By Steve Lopez, Points West

The mayor of Los Angeles could go down in flames because of it, and the governor of California is turning out to be one of the biggest frauds in political history because of it.

I'm talking about money, money, money and more money. Specifically, I'm talking about political fundraising.

You are certainly entitled to believe that in the last city election, powerful Los Angeles business execs wrote campaign checks to Jim Hahn because they believed he would be an administrative genius and legislative visionary.

But by coincidence, some of Hahn's more generous donors have big fat city contracts. The mayor's challengers â€" all of whom have their own taint when it comes to fundraising â€" are accusing Hahn of running a pay-to-play City Hall, and federal investigators have their own questions.

The fundraising compulsion is both shady and contagious. Even as the Hahn story plays out, the president of the Los Angeles Board of Education seems to be coming down with it.

Jose Huizar, who has no opposition, has raised more than $330,000 for his reelection campaign â€" or who knows what future political race. As Times reporter Cara Mia DiMassa pointed out, much of the money is from companies that might just be interested in contracts to build new schools.

As for Gov. Arnold $chwarzenegger, where do I even begin?

Maybe with an apology to Gray Davis.

I used to joke that the former governor had an obsessive-compulsive fundraising disorder, but that was before I saw what $chwarzenegger was capable of.

The man is on his way to raising $150 million in three years, having scheduled a series of dinners in which it costs $100,000 just to get close enough to cut his rubber chicken, as Robert Salladay reported this month. And this was the guy who was supposed to clean up Sacramento.

"I'm frankly confused by his behavior, which seems so contrary to the basis upon which he ran in the first place," says Susan Lerner of the California Clean Money Campaign.

"The money is not for me," the governor said on the radio.

Of course not.

"It's all to go out and to be able to have TV spots," $chwarzenegger continued, "and to educate the people and to let them know which way to vote and that we together can reform California."

Let's review:

We're all idiots, basically. But we are going to get smart by watching political ads on TV, paid for with millions of dollars in donations from the governor's favorite $pecial intere$t$.

Like me, Lerner is somewhat skeptical, and she has a far better idea for reforming California:

Public financing of campaigns for state office.

This would cost each adult about $5, a small price to pay for draining the cesspool.

Arizona and Maine did it, and the reviews are pretty good. Arizonans have seen a new era of bipartisan problem-solving. Less budget money is eaten up repaying political donors. And public financing has opened politics to more women and minorities.

"You run on the strength of your ideas, not on how many powerful friends you have," says Lerner. "In Maine, a waitress ran for office and won. In Arizona, a grad student and potter got fed up with the way things were, and she ran and won."

Lerner's California Clean Money Campaign is behind a state Assembly bill that would raise $120 million annually to finance campaigns, giving predetermined equal amounts to candidates who qualify. Lerner and other clean-money supporters are still debating the source of the $120 million.

"The most creative way of financing it was done in Arizona," says Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies. "They add 10% to every traffic fine, speeding ticket, criminal and civil fine, and they're rolling in money, all of which goes to fund the campaigns."

In other words, if you get pulled over doing 90 mph on the 405, and the ticket is $150, it would go up to $165. Each county and city, by the way, could enact similar clean-money campaigns by finding their own ways to finance them.

Lerner says another possibility is a fee on oil drilling, which could cover the entire cost of publicly financed campaigns for state office.

"Every oil-producing state in the country, including Texas, has an oil severance fee, but California doesn't."

To qualify for public financing, Lerner says, a person would have to do some nominal private fundraising. You'd have to raise $5 each from 500 people to run for Assembly â€" or from 15,000 people to run for governor â€" and the rest of your money would be public.

No more candidates cozying up to developers. No groveling at the feet of union bosses. No cigar nights with insurance and pharmaceutical pooh-bahs.

If a big shot were to opt out of the public system and use his or her own money, the opponent would get matching public dollars up to a predetermined limit.

The opponent would enjoy the advantage of an angry public that doesn't like seeing a greedy, privately financed candidate grab scads of special interest money, thereby driving up the public tab for his clean-money opponent.

Will we see this kind of reform any time soon? Not without a high-profile supporter, Lerner says, and she has someone in mind.

"He's the one who really spotlighted the problem in his recall campaign," she says of $chwarzenegger, who could be putting his bully pulpit to far better use. "He has real potential to be a leader and an innovator."

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at http://www.latimes.com/lopez


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