A bipartisan citizens commission on Wednesday proposed a sweeping overhaul of how legislative political races are financed, declaring reform is needed because legislators really have two constituencies: "people who vote and people who contribute."
But commission members acknowledged it probably will be necessary to take the case for reform to the voters with a ballot initiative because legislators traditionally have been reluctant to restrict their own fund-raising abilities.
The 21-member, privately financed commission represents a broad spectrum of California interests, including politics. It recommended, among other things, limiting campaign contributions and expenditures, banning donations during non-election years, prohibiting the transfer of political money from one legislator to another and moving toward partial public financing of races.
The commission estimated that legislative campaign spending increased more than 3,100% between 1958 and 1984, from $1.4 million to $44.8 million, and it said the figure could nearly double to $87 million by 1990.
"Today, legislators in California have two constituencies, people who vote and people who contribute," said Los Angeles attorney Mickey Kantor, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who served on the commission. "The combination of increased costs, the political arms race and unrestrained contributions and expenditures have given a dominant voice to those who contribute."
Another commission member, former Republican Assembly Speaker Robert T. Monagan, now president of the California Economic Development Corp., said, "Legislators find it extremely difficult to legislate against their own activities. I don't find fault with them in that regard. That's a very natural process."
But assuming a campaign financing reform bill cannot pass the Legislature, Monagan added, "I would hope that someone would pick up the battle and carry it to the next arena, which would be an opportunity for the people to speak on the question through the initiative process."
In brief, the commission proposal would:
- Limit expenditures in legislative campaigns by candidates who accept public matching funds that would be provided under the proposal. Assembly candidates who accept the matching funds would be limited to spending a total of $375,000--$150,000 for the primary and $225,000 for the general. The limit in Senate races would be $600,000--$250,000 in the primary and $350,000 in the general. No spending limits would be imposed on candidates who elect not to accept public matching money.
- Prohibit all campaign fund raising during non-election years. This would stop a current practice that lets incumbents get a head start over future challengers by continually throwing big-money fund-raisers.
- Ban transfers of money from candidates or legislators to other candidates. One way that Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) retain their posts is by doling out excess campaign funds to those who support them.
- Place dollar limits on contributions to candidates by individuals, corporations, labor unions and political action committees. The basic limit would be $1,000 per election.
- Offer limited public matching funds in primary and general elections to candidates who agree to restrict their spending, raise qualifying amounts in small contributions, and have an opponent who raises or spends at least $35,000.
Campaign finance reform has been kicking around the Legislature for years without much success.
The 1984 Legislature approved a reform bill calling for partial taxpayer financing of state legislative campaigns. But Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed the measure, contending it was "inappropriate to ask the taxpayers to fund the political aspirations of those who seek state elective office."
The rejected legislation, authored by Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), also would have established an income tax checkoff system to provide the money if the voters had approved Proposition 40, a campaign contribution limitation initiative, on last November's ballot. But Proposition 40, sponsored by Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-La Habra), went down at the polls by a lopsided 36% to 64% margin.
At a state Capitol press conference, Kantor said it is not surprising to him that Proposition 40 failed because no money was spent to promote it. (Opponents spent about $800,000 to defeat the measure.) But Kantor said there is a "very good chance" to pass an initiative similar to the commission plan with a properly financed campaign.
Voter Education Stressed
Monagan said it will require educating the voters because there is not a "tidal wave of public opinion out there that is concerned about reform of campaign financing."
"A big expose or scandal before the voters go to the polls would not hurt at all either," he added.
Despite the pessimism of the two political veterans, two legislative leaders said later in interviews that the plan will receive serious consideration in the Capitol.
Asked for comment, Brown said he is sure that a bill including most of the commission's recommendations could pass both the Assembly and the Senate.
"Absolutely," Brown said. "I know we can pass a reform bill. We passed one last year. But then the governor vetoes it again."
A spokesman for Deukmejian said the governor's position on the use of public funds for campaign financing has not changed since last year. The governor also opposed Proposition 40.