Waiting...waiting...still waiting...for campaign-finance reform.
Thursday, February 17, 2000
It''s election season once again. As presidential campaigns move forward and the state of California readies for the March primaries, pundits have revived the discussion about the influence that Big Money has on our democracy. At long last, substantive campaign-finance reforms have become a part of discussions about the inordinate influence that Big Money has on statewide and local ballot measures.
One doesn''t have to look very hard to see the problems.
Both Proposition 21, the so-called Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, and the city of Monte-rey''s Measure B--the Coastal Protection Initiative--are illustrative of the problem of Big Money weighing in to influence voters on important ballot issues.
Proposition 21 has been championed by former Gov. Pete Wilson to dramatically overhaul the juvenile-justice system. The thrust of the initiative is to de-emphasize the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders and track youth offenders into the punishment-oriented adult justice system.
Interestingly, much of the cash mobilized to place the initiative on the ballot came from some of Wilson''s largest corporate contributors. Unocal gave $50,000, PG&E $50,000, Chevron $25,000, and a Nevada casino operation and a Texas-based auto insurance outfit each gave $10,000.
Why do these corporate and out-of-state interests support Prop 21? The one interest they all share is past support for the political career of Pete Wilson. If the initiative passes, California taxpayers will be asked to absorb up to $1 billion in increased costs of housing youth offenders in adult prison facilities.
Here at home, Measure B was placed on the ballot by a grassroots effort that garnered 2,600 signatures from registered Monterey city voters. The Sierra Club''s Ventana Chapter, the Dunes Coalition, the Peninsula Democratic Club Board, and other local organizations support the measure. The city of Monterey has spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees alone to counter the initiative.
As Election Day nears, corporate money is expected to fill the opponents'' campaign coffers to "out-message" the local grassroots effort. The Catellus Development Corporation has contributed $20,000 to oppose Measure B. The San Francisco-based real estate subsidiary of the Santa Fe Pacific Railroad, Catellus has one of the largest portfolios of developable land in the United States. Its revenues for the nine months ending Sept. 30 rose 14 percent to $125.9 million. And, at the local level, the Cannery Row Company has contributed $22,000 to defeat Measure B.
In the state of California, there are no limits on campaign contributions to candidates or ballot initiatives. Opponents of campaign spending limits argue that their free speech rights will be infringed if such limits are imposed.
But what of the free-speech rights of citizen voters? The best organized grassroots campaign can be derailed by the ability of corporate-funded campaigns to shape the message voters will evaluate in deciding how to vote. Historically, the organizers of better-funded campaigns promote messages that play to voters'' fears: crime, unreasonable restraints on development, higher taxes and other hot-button issues.
The courts have described the initiative process as one of the most precious rights of our democratic process, and have liberally protected that right when the initiative process has been challenged. Initiatives encourage active participation by citizens in our government and, through education and advocacy, give us the right of direct legislation to shape public policy.
But this precious right has been emasculated by the unregulated power of Big Money interests to shape the debate and call the tune.
So long as the voice of corporate America has superior and unrestricted firepower in our electoral system, individual citizen voters and grassroots organizations will be the losers. The vision of campaigns waged on the merits of an issue will remain a distant dream until our electoral system is reformed to provide equal access to the electorate for candidates and the backers of ballot initiatives.
Bill Monning is the president of the Pro-Democracy Education Fund and an advocate for fundamental campaign finance reform.