Campaign Finance Reform in
California: Back to Square One
The Governor's veto of SB 588 (Lockyer) concludes yet another
chapter in California's long and largely unsuccessful quest for campaign
finance reform. It began with Proposition 9 in 1974, a response to the
Watergate scandal that undermined people's confidence in the political
system. That initiative was approved with a whopping 70% of the vote.
Proposition 9, officially titled the Political Reform Act of 1974, was a
tough measure, heralded by proponents as a way to "put an end to the
corruption in politics." However, court decisions gutted much of the
essence of the act, leaving the measure's disclosure provisions intact but
eliminating campaign spending limits and prohibitions against lobbyists
making or arranging campaign contributions.
Proposition 68 and 73 followed in 1988. Both passed the people's
muster but not the courts', although the state Supreme Court has held out
the hope of reviving Proposition 73 by re-writing it to satisfy the concerns
of federal courts.
Senate Bill 588 would have filled the vacuum left by the negated
initiatives. It would have provided for contribution limits and
voluntary spending limits for state legislative races. Among
its controversial provisions was partial public funding of campaigns for
candidates agreeing to limit spending. The Governor's signature would
have placed the proposal on the ballot in March 1996. His veto puts us
back to square one.
Based on the three initiatives adopted by the people, the elements
of meaningful campaign finance reform are obvious. They must include
severing the link between lobbying and campaign fundraising. The 1974
act's prohibition against lobbyists making or arranging campaign
contributions needs to be recrafted to address court concerns and then
restored. It would not be cure all, but it would be an important beginning.
Beyond severing the link between lobbying and campaign fundraising,
we need to restore the contribution limits contained in Proposition 73.
They worked to limit both undue influence and spending in 1990 when they
were in effect and in special legislative district elections currently.
We need them back.
We also need spending limits. Mandatory spending limits went out
the window when the United States Supreme Court equated spending with
speech back in the mid-1970's. However, voluntary spending limits are
Partial public funding of campaigns is often offered as an incentive
to limit spending voluntary. However, in these days of budget deficits,
it is difficult imagining the taxpayers wanting to divert money from
public safety and education and health care to fund the campaigns
There is a better way to encourage spending limits-"variable
contribution limit". Under this system, those candidates agreeing to
abide by spending limits benefit by having higher contribution limits.
The City of Oakland is trying this system this year. Other incentives
include candidate statements and photographs in ballot pamphlets and no
contribution limits to raise a limited amount of "seed money" for those
candidates agreeing to limit spending.
With the veto of SB 588, the earliest we could see campaign finance
reform will be 1996. Even that would require swift action on the part of
the Legislature when it convenes in December. There are, of course,
serious disagreements as to what precise "reforms" are appropriate.
However, when men and women of good will want to reach agreement, they
can. In this case, they must. The people demand it. The people deserve
it. If the Legislature doesn't act, the people will by initiative as
they did in 1974 and 1988. Either way, they job must get done.
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