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Friday, June 09, 2006

Independent Spending Tarnishes Golden State Politics

Campaign spending by independent expenditure committees for and against candidates in the run-up to Tuesday's California primary was massive. IE committees, which are not subject to Prop 34's contribution limits, cannot coordinate in any fashion with candidate campaigns or their spending is treated as a campaign contribution subject to limits.

In addition to the much-discussed $10,000,000 ad campaign on behalf of Phil Angelides by the Tsakopoulos clan, IE committees spent tens of millions of dollars across the state on legislative and statewide office races, often propping up or attacking candidates in Democratic races on either side of the Business/Labor divide.

Much of the spending came from committees who took contributions far exceeding the limits on contributions to candidates. For example, Angelo Tsakopoulos contributed $6,130,000 to his pro-Angelides committee, far above the $22,300/election limits on contributions to Angelides' official candidate committee (his daughter Eleni chipped in another $2.5 million). Leaders for an Effective Government, an IE committee which spent nearly half a million bucks supporting AD 12 candidate Fiona Ma and opposing her opponent Janet Reilly, took in $50,000 from a realtors' PAC this year, far more than the $5,000 limit on PAC contributions to candidate committees. The California Alliance for Progress and Education, which spent $2 million supporting mostly business Dems in Senate races, took $400,000 from the dentists PAC and $500,000 from the realtors.

So what gives? The IE committees evaded Prop 34's contribution limits like the Germans sidestepped the Maginot Line. Are contribution limits just an elaborate illusion, an artifice forever doomed to irrelevance by independent spending?

The short answer is no. While the US Supreme Court has ruled that we cannot regulate how much an individual spends independently of candidates, it has not prohibited regulating contributions to IE committees. Federal law has limited contributions to IE committees for years, for example.

Setting aside for the moment the Court's curious deference to the so-called free speech rights of rich people at the expense of the constitutional rights of the rest of us to political voice and representative government, this means that California could limit contributions to IE committees just as we do to candidate committees. Angelo Tsakopolous would still be able to spend his millions, but he could not hide behind the sheltering public image of the firefighters, nor could PG&E and gaming tribes hide behind names like the African American Political Empowerment PAC.

In other words, a financially powerful interest could still spend their millions, but they would have to put their name on the ads, mailings, etc., which would significantly curtail the effectiveness of the ads. This solution is not ideal - a much better answer would be for the Supreme Court to stop shortchanging the political rights of 99% of the population so that the richest 1% can continue buying electoral hegemony - but it is better than the mad spending we saw this year from disguised sources.

So why didn't Prop 34 put limits on contributions to IE committees? It's easy enough to do, as shown by the California Nurses Association in their campaign finance ballot measure, the signatures for which are currently being vetted for this November's ballot. Section 91105(a) of the measure limits contributions to IE committees to $1,000/year, a limit given teeth by Section 91105(g)'s limiting a donor's aggregate contributions to all IE committees to $7,500/year.

Prop 34 was former state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton's baby, put on the ballot by the legislature as Prop 208 ( a citizen-initiated pro-reform measure) worked its way through the courts. Prop 34's contribution limits were 10-40 times higher than Prop 208's. As Lance Olson, who drafted the measure, has said, Prop 34 was not designed to check the flood of money, but rather to direct money through the parties.

In other words, Prop 34 is an artifice - John Burton's artifice, along with all the members of the legislature who put the measure on the ballot (Assembly vote, Senate vote). It is not a reform measure in intent, design, or effect, and should not be used as the standard for judging the effectiveness of all reforms.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, John Burton seeded the Leaders for Effective Government committee that played such a large role in the Ma/Reilly race with nearly $700,000 in 2000. That same cycle, the committee weighed in on behalf of state senate candidate Nell Soto with nearly $200,000 in IEs.)

Mr. Burton's political spending is not the problem - the spending of his committee accounted for just a few drops of the IE deluge we saw this year. Clearly, there are other interests in California that are willing and able to spend tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to get their allies and candidates into public office. That being said, Mr. Burton's law is a stinker, the effect of which should not serve as a rationale for stepping backwards, but rather for showing the way ahead.

Electoral influence is very nearly a zero sum game. As wealthy interests gain more influence, the public's power and voice in government diminishes accordingly. This undermines the quality of representation in government, with the corresponding erosion of public interest in elections and government and the problems which attend such disinterest.

IEs are just the latest technique for the financially powerful to dominate elections in California. There are constitutional steps available to check that influence. If the voters have enough faith to show up at the polls this fall, they may have a chance to vote on one such step.

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