Independent Expenditure Use Skyrockets to Skirt Donation Limits
SACRAMENTO-Developers, labor unions, corporations, Indian tribes and other interest groups are using "an orgy of independent expenditures" to skirt the campaign contribution limits voters adopted more than seven years ago, the state's chief elections watchdog said Thursday.
"The people of California have repeatedly voted to limit direct contributions to candidates for state office-most recently (through) Proposition 34 in November of 2000," said Ross Johnson, the chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
"It was their desire and expectation that fewer special interest dollars find their way into campaigns. But thanks to an orgy of independent expenditures, just the opposite has occurred."
It defies logic to suggest that big independent expenditures can't have an undue influence on candidates and officeholders, Johnson added.
The FPPC said that use of independent expenditures-campaign spending that supposedly isn't coordinated with a candidate-has jumped more than 6,000 percent in legislative races and more than 5,000 percent in campaigns for governor and other statewide offices since Proposition 34's limits on donations to candidates kicked in.
That's resulted in more than $88 million in television and radio ads, brochures and other campaign spending paid for directly by a variety of interest groups.
Unfortunately, Johnson said, there's not much that the FPPC can do about it, although the commission plans to explore the possibility of adopting regulations that would give voters a better idea of who's making independent expenditures.
"We are not the Legislature or the Supreme Court," Johnson said. "The law is what the law is. The statutes we are charged with enforcing are what they are."
There are no limits on independent expenditures and courts have almost consistently ruled against them so far.
Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, defended the use of independent expenditures. The FPPC said Macarro's tribe has made more than $6 million in independent expenditures.
"Courts have held up time and again that independent expenditures are a critical form of protected free speech in America's political process-thus a critical component of democracy," Macarro said in a statement. "We didn't invent the rules; we just play by them."
Derek Cressman, government watchdog director of Common Cause, said that at some point California should try to put limits on donations to independent expenditure committees, but he said now might not be the best time because of the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cressman was one of five witnesses who testified at a nearly two-hour hearing held by the FPPC to look at ways it could respond to the flood of independent expenditures.
Witnesses also suggested:
- Requiring campaign ads to more clearly identify the top donors to independent expenditure committees.
- Providing public financing to help candidates targeted by independent expenditures.
- Making it easier for voters, reporters and others to track independent expenditures on the secretary of state's Web site.
- Expanding disclosure requirements for another growing use of special interest money-issue ads that praise or criticize candidates without calling for their election or defeat.
Big independent expenditures can distort election outcomes and influence decisions made by candidates and officeholders, Cressman said, but he suggested independent expenditures were better than allowing donors to give unlimited contributions directly to candidates.
There can also be some benefits from having independent expenditures, including the possibility that independent expenditure committees will focus on issues that candidates would rather not discuss, he said.
"I don't think it's healthy in a democracy for candidates to be controlling the debate," he said.
Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles based think tank, said California's donation limits, which range from $24,100 for contributions to candidates for governor to $3,600 for legislative campaigns, are too high.
He said they should be cut to the same level as federal contribution limits-$2,300 per donor per election.
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