Freedom Of Spending?
Overturn of Prop. 208 has many talking public election financing.
Thursday, January 15, 1998
Last week''s decision by a federal court judge to overturn Proposition 208, the campaign finance reform initiative passed by California voters in November 1996, was of little surprise to some. The proponents of the ballot measure "were warned by other public interest groups that it would be found unconstitutional," says Bob Mulholland, campaign advisor for the California Democratic Party. Mulholland characterizes 208''s proponents as "not serious people" who "just had an ax to grind." The problem, says Mulholland is that "people should stop writing initiatives late at night after three beers."
But local sponsors of the measure, including the League of Women Voters, the American Association of Retired Persons and the Monterey County Green Party, took the matter very seriously, collecting signatures and holding meetings and other events to bring the issue of campaign finance reform into local debate. "We worked pretty hard on that campaign," says Winston Elstob, Green Party councilmember. "You wonder just what good it does for the people to speak when they keep getting overturned."
The League of Women Voters of the Monterey Peninsula also helped collect signatures to get 208 on the ballot, says president Lorita Fisher. "We had hoped to take a step in leveling the playing field, at least in California, for those who want to run for public office but do not have great sums of private money at their disposal," says Fisher, adding that the league and other supporters are now regrouping in preparation for the appeals process.
One of the main criticisms of the ballot measure, however, is that it gave an advantage to candidates with deep pockets. Gary Patton, of the Planning and Conservation League, says he has "mixed feelings" about US District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton''s action against the initiative. "It''s very clear that people with lots of money would have a particularly strong advantage" over other candidates, says Patton, since under the law, personal spending was not limited. "On the other hand it had many good features, which are also down the drain," he says.
Patton believes the controversy and confusion over 208 and campaign finance reform in general point to a need for some fundamental change in the way political campaigns are financed. "Obviously what we need is comprehensive reform," says Patton, who points out that a 1976 Supreme Court decision equating campaign spending with free speech has basically limited the ability to do such wholesale reform.
Patton and others, including many of 208''s supporters, believe the best solution to what everyone seems to agree is a serious problem in electoral politics, is some form of public financing of campaigns. "When we understand what elections really do: decide who is going to provide our representation in public policy debates," he says, it''s clear that "elections are public events with public significance and the public should pay the cost."
But taxpayers are reluctant to shoulder that additional burden, especially when there are plenty of moneyed interests willing to pitch in. The tax savings to the public, however, may be extremely costly to democracy. "When we fund the whole electoral and political system with private money," says Patton, "we''re saying it is to be bought and sold by the highest bidder. Those who pay make the rules. That''s the essence of what''s wrong."
Former chair of the Monterey County Task Force on Campaign Finance Reform and former local political candidate, Bill Monning, agrees public financing is the best solution. The overturn of 208 and Judge Karlton''s lengthy decision, says Monning, is "further evidence of the need for a comprehensive system of public financing for elections, which would eliminate all private money and give all qualified candidates equal access to the voters."
Such a comprehensive system would "include as a condition of FCC licensing, that [media outlets] give candidates access to air time" in an equitable manner, Monning says.
Mulholland also supports public financing of electoral campaigns, and is optimistic about its eventual adoption. "We do think reform will happen in California some day," he says, "and we will support one that is fair for everyone." Mulholland claims Republicans tend not to support the idea and notes Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a Democrat-sponsored state campaign finance reform bill, passed in 1994. "Republicans say they''re for [reform]," he says, "but they raise more money [than Democrats], so they will never really support it."
With no such reform on the horizon, however, Judge Karlton''s decision makes a local ordinance passed by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in September "even more operative," says Monning. The ordinance, passed at the recommendation of the Campaign Finance Reform Task Force, which Monning headed, expands disclosure requirements, gives the district attorney more enforcement power over candidates who do not comply and "makes campaign finance information more available to the public, by putting candidates'' financial statements in all libraries, on the Internet," and making them more easily available to the media, he says.
Monning is also concerned about the combined effect of going "back to the law of the jungle" as a result of 208''s reversal and California voters'' 1996 decision to allow open primaries, which he expects to "have a homogenizing effect on the political process and reduce the range of discourse on public policy issues" as candidates scramble to appeal to the widest possible range of voters." Open primaries will mean even more expensive campaigns as candidates reach across party lines for potential support. This increased spending, "combined with the invalidation of 208 [will further increase] the potential for money to taint the political process. Big contributors expect to be heard," he says.