Democrats Push Overhaul of State Campaign Funding

Times Staff Writer

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and his Democratic allies on Monday proposed a sweeping overhaul of political campaign financing designed to reduce legislators' reliance on big special interest contributions by tapping the state treasury.

California's legislative contests are the most costly in the nation, in part because there are no limits on campaign donations or spending and because of the high cost of media advertising.

For example, the $44.8 million spent on 1984 legislative races represented a 3,100% increase over campaign costs of 25 years ago. And it is estimated that the price tag could reach $87 million by 1990.

Limits on Contributions

The new Democratic proposal calls for limiting campaign contributions and expenditures, banning donations during non-election years, outlawing the transfer of political money from one legislator to another, and--perhaps the most controversial of all--partial financing by California taxpayers.

The cost of the plan, according to its sponsors, would range between $4 million and $6 million yearly--in other words, $8 million to $12 million for each two-year election cycle.

Republican Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed similar legislation in 1984 because, he said, it was "inappropriate to ask the taxpayers to finance the political aspirations of those who seek state elective office."

Brown, however, said Monday that he hopes the governor can be persuaded to sign a bill this year--if it also included a provision calling for the voters to ratify the plan. Just two years ago, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have revised campaign financing laws in a different way without any major use of public money.

"We need a campaign finance reform law now," said Brown (D-San Francisco). "We produced a bill and placed it on the governor's desk last session, and we will do so again this year."

Deukmejian was reported to be open-minded but not enthusiastic about Brown's plan.

Kevin Brett, a spokesman for the governor, said: "We are amenable to discussing the subject of campaign reform with the Legislature, but the bottom line is that the governor's concerns about certain reform proposals are going to have to be addressed. He continues to be unenthusiastic about taxpayer-supported legislative campaigns."

Developed by Commission

The plan was actually developed by the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a privately financed bipartisan group that includes former Republican Assembly Speaker Robert T. Monagan and Los Angeles attorney Mickey Kantor, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist.

"Except for ratification on Election Day," Kantor said, "nearly every California citizen is merely part of the political backdrop. The right to vote for most is ceremonial in nature because those who give in large sums to campaigns (that) spend in unfettered amounts have created a privileged class of voters called contributors."

The legislation also is backed by Common Cause, a citizens activist group.

Funds for public financing under the plan would be raised by a voluntary $3 checkoff on state income tax forms--similar to the $1 checkoff on federal returns for presidential elections.

Under the proposal unveiled Monday, the first $250 of any contribution would be matched with state taxpayer money. Contributions from within a candidate's legislative district would be matched on a 5-1 basis--a $10 contribution from a private citizen would gain the candidate $50 from the state. Out-of-district contributions would be matched on a 3-1 basis.

Limits on Spending

The proposal would limit Assembly candidates to spending $150,000 in primary elections and $225,000 in general elections. Candidates for state senator would be limited to $250,000 and $350,000 for each election.

Contributions per candidate would be limited to $1,000 from individuals, political action committees, businesses and unions. Total contributions from political action committees could not exceed $50,000 per Assembly election and $75,000 per Senate election.

By comparison, members of Congress--and their opponents--are limited by federal law to individual contributions of no more than $2,000 in each primary and general election cycle. However, political action committees can contribute up to $10,000 per cycle.

Banks, corporations and labor unions are prohibited from donating to congressional candidates, although these institutions often contribute to political action committees, which in turn give the money to Congress members.

Under Brown's plan, unlike the federal law, there would be no ban on bank, corporation and union donations.

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