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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Limiting Campaign Spending In Wine Country
In the heart of California's Napa Valley, there is a little town called St. Helena. About six thousand people live in the town, that takes up about 4 square miles. It's the sort of place where most people know each other, and political campaigns are low budget affairs. Or, used to be, that is.

Recently, Carolyn Martini, an appropriately named wine executive decided to spend $9,000 on her campaign for the school board. Most candidates typically spend about $1,000 on brochures and a few lawn signs, but Martini hired a campaign consultant, took out full page ads, did a big mailing -- the whole nine yards.

In doing so, Martini broke the rule that sets limits of $3000 for spending on school board elections. In this article in the Napa Valley Register, she complains that nobody told her about the limits. Then she claims they are unconstitutional. The school attorney says they are legal.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory spending limits enacted by the US Congress back in 1976. They said that money is the same thing as free speech, and that there wasn't enough evidence that limiting spending justified limits on free speech. However, many jurisdictions have simply ignored this Supreme Court ruling and kept mandatory spending limits on the books. Albuquerque, New Mexico is perhaps the most prominent example. The state of Vermont enacted mandatory spending limits in 1997 and a federal court of appeals has issued (and then rescinded) a ruling supporting them (stay tuned for the final results.)

In any case, St. Helena may be yet another example where common sense campaign finance reform has worked successfully for years until some big money player decided to break the rules. As the outgoing school board member says, "I don't think local school board elections should be a high-financed proposition. I think anyone should be able to run." Stay tuned to see whether the rules stay in place to keep local elections low budget affairs.

UPDATE: Looks like the money worked. Martini won, according to this news story.

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