Keeping It Clean
Bill would cut strings from campaign dollars.
Thursday, November 3, 2005
The idea behind state Assembly Bill 583 is simple: politicians needn’t tangle with money that has strings attached to it.
While that scenario resonates loudly among those who feel that California’s ever-increasing, record-breaking campaign contributions have all but corrupted the political process, the bill’s supporters admit that a rough road lies ahead of it.
“I’m not too optimistic,” says Central Coast Assemblyman John Laird, a proponent of the campaign finance reform bill. “Too many people stand to lose, even though [its passage] would make such a positive difference.”
Authored by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, AB 583 would offer state candidates public money to run their campaigns on certain conditions, the most important being refusal to take big donations from private donors. If candidates don’t have to rely on big donors to win an election, the argument goes, that frees them from having to return the favor once they have gained power in Sacramento.
So far, more than a dozen state legislators have gotten behind the bill. Not a single Republican is among them.
Members of the California Clean Money Campaign say they are working hard to turn the bill—which proposes raising about $125 million annually in taxes—into a bipartisan topic by reaching out to Republican lawmakers. But they also say they’ll plow ahead even if it means bypassing the Legislature and running the bill as a voter initiative.
Susan Lerner, executive director for the clean money campaign, hopes it doesn’t come to that. She says the upcoming special election, for which over $230 million has been raised statewide, may end up creating a more favorable climate for a bill like AB 583.
“This coming legislative session is our best chance,” Lerner says. “There is this incredible campaign fatigue, not only on the part of voters, but legislators as well. I don’t know about Monterey County, but in LA you can’t turn the TV on without being bombarded by a never-ending stream of ads.”
As part of the clean money group’s public awareness campaign, board member Sara Nichols will deliver a talk on the bill at 12:30pm on Nov. 9 at an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Monterey Peninsula. The event will take place at the Monterey Elks Lodge, 150 Mar Vista Dr., Monterey.
One point Nichols will stress is that this bill would benefit candidates as much as it would members of the public who can’t afford to buy access via big campaign donations.
“Most of the time, candidates spend so much time raising money that it becomes their primary focus,” says Nichols, a former political consultant in Sacramento. “Once elected, they dedicate between six to 15 hours a week—not even in an election year—exclusively for fundraising calls. That time could be spent finding out what their constituents really want and need.”
While Laird says his votes often irk his campaign contributors, he’s seen plenty of examples where it appears that big money donations produced the desired effect in Sacramento.
“I think the oil industry significantly influences air quality legislation,” Laird says. “Three years ago a high-profile bill on greenhouse gasses passed by one vote after an incredible struggle and frantic lobbying, even though polls showed three of four Californians supported it.”
Other examples of money appearing to buy influence abound, says Lerner. She cites a recent account exposing how Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s largest donors receive a special-access phone number through which they learn the governor’s latest strategy and can offer top aides—and sometimes Schwarzenegger himself—their input.
“I know a lot of active people, but none with that phone number,” Lerner says. “This confirms people’s cynicism.”
Last year, AB 583’s precursor actually made it out of the Assembly Election Committee—the first campaign finance reform bill to do so in several years.
This year, however, AB 583 failed to do the same, thanks mostly to an unresolved debate on how high the cap of public funds allowed per candidate should be. When the next legislative session opens in January, AB 583 will return as a two-year bill, Lerner says.
Whatever its final outcome—either as a bill or as a voter initiative—Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC, warns that a permanent cure to the impish union of politics and money is hard to crack.
“There have been attempts to deal with money’s influence in politics for well over 100 years,” Noble says. “The pattern is first there’s a scandal, then a successful attempt at reform, then that works for a while before people eventually figure a way around the laws.”
CALIFORNIA CLEAN MONEY CAMPAIGN BOARDMEMBER SARA NICHOLS WILL SPEAK AT 12:30PM AT THE MONTEREY ELKS LODGE, 150 MAR VISTA DR. IN MONTEREY, ON WEDNESDAY, NOV. 9.648-8683.