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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Notes From California Clean Money Hearing

Much like the gladiators of the Roman Forum, clean money went to do battle today at the Capitol in Sacramento, receiving a hearing before the Senate Elections Committee. While the committee members have as yet only cocked their thumbs, like their imperial counterparts of yore, those thumbs are clearly trembling in anticipation of passing judgment and the lions are salivating.

Today the California Senate Elections Committee heard AB 583, the latest version of a bill by Assemblymember Loni Hancock, which would provide public funds for qualifying candidates for public office. Earlier this year, AB 583 passed not only the Assembly elections and appropriations committees, but to the surprise of many political observers, the Assembly itself.

The Elections Committee, comprised of Democrats Debra Bowen, Kevin Murray, and Gloria Romero and Republicans Jim Battin and Chuck Poochigian, gave a chilly reception to the bill, although did not vote on it.

Opposition to the bill was led by Senators Murray and Battin, who focused mostly on the possible use of independent expenditures as a way to frustrate the bill's purposes. Along with Senator Romero, they also raised a number of gratuitous sidepoints and red herrings to provide further smokescreen for their basic opposition to change the system under which they all were elected. None even began to offer a counterproposal to dealing with corrupting role of big money in politics.

Helping Hancock defend the bill was Mark Spitzer, a former state senator and current Corporations Commissioner in Arizona, a state which has used a clean money system with some success for several years. Spitzer's presence was positive and his knowledge and experience impressive, but his lack of knowledge about the cost of California campaigns was seized on by Battin as an excuse for why the Arizona experience is not particularly applicable to California.

The effectiveness of any public financing program lies largely in its details: where the threshholds are set for qualifying signatures, how much funding is initially provided, how supplementary funds are dispersed for those clean money candidates who face massive opposition spending from independent expenditure committees or wealthy self-financing candidates. That discussion should be part of any deliberative process, but one couldn't help getting the sense that Senators Battin, Murray, and Romero were more interested in finding a way to torpedo the bill than they were in figuring out ways to get it to work.

In sum, AB 583 doesn't stand a snowball's chance of passing the Senate Elections Commitee as that committee is currently comprised. Three members expressed thinly-veiled hostility to the bill, while the absence of a fourth member spoke volumes about his assessment of the bill's prospects. While a vote on the bill was put over until a future hearing, it is clear that when the vote does occur, AB 538 will be tossed to the lions.

Waiting in the wings is a clean money initiative sponsored by the California Nurses Association. If sufficient signatures are gathered to place the initiative on the ballot, it will not be subject to the imperial thumbs of various legislative committees, but rather to a vote of the people. As such, supporters of reducing the influence of big money on California elections should take heart. This one ain't over yet.

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