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Thursday, August 05, 2004

A Handful of California Billionaires Spend Millions to Fashion the Public Policy They Want

California law "limits" campaign contributions to candidates to $21,200 per election cycle, indexed for inflation. Everybody who can afford to give this much, step forward. Oh, right.

As much as this favors wealthy donors over regular folks when it comes to electing candidates who support their agendas, California's system of financing ballot initiatives is even worse. It has no contribution limits. Most rich donors love this of course, and line up with checkbooks in hand to write checks for millions of dollars to support their favorite causes, whether in the interest of the greater California public or no.

As Paul Elias of the Associated Press reports, the latest ballot initiative to receive the royal treatment is Prop 71, which aims to direct over $3 billion towards stem cell research over the next ten years. Four billionaires have given at least $1 million in support of Prop 71, including one who has given nearly $2 million. Without passing judgment on the merits of the bill, these donations corrupt the very idea of democracy that ballot initiatives are intended to reflect.

Democracy. Rule of the people. The people as a whole decide, not just a handful of the rich and powerful. By allowing wealthy donors to make unlimited contributions to ballot initiatives, we allow them to vault an issue immediately into public prominence (through tv and newspaper ads, through fliers, etc.), sidestepping the democratic decision-making process whereby an issue gets broached in our living rooms, discussed at millions of kitchen tables, and mulled over during our countless morning showers and commutes, allowing we the people to arrive at our own decision as to whether an issue merits public action, and if so what action.

When a handful of people have the economic power to thrust an issue in our faces, complete with arguments and counterarguments and solutions, it pre-empts this process. It force-feeds us the rich people's particular conception of the issues of the day and spoon-feeds us their preferred public policy solutions. It buys them legitimacy without going to the people whose consent is required before legitimacy attaches to any public action in a democracy.

California's wealthy donors may have their hearts in the right place on Prop 71 or any other ballot initiative they contribute millions of dollars towards. Be that as it may, that does not excuse or justify the corrupting effects their huge donations have on our democracy. Wealthy interests, regardless of their moral or ethical or political leanings, should play by the same rules as the rest of us.

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