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The Time Is Now to Address PACs : * Reform Panel to Go Over County’s Campaign Law

When Orange County’s campaign-contribution law was put on the books nearly 13 years ago, political action committees (PACs) were barely a blip on the horizon of local politics. Now PACs, which have proliferated nationwide, have become a major factor in financing campaigns. Their existence, however, is not addressed in TINCUP (Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics), Orange County’s campaign-financing law. The time is now to close that loophole.

Under TINCUP, contributions to the five members of the Board of Supervisors are not limited, but supervisors are disqualified from voting on projects that concern contributors who have given them more than $1,944 during a four-year period. (The amount that triggers the disqualification rises with inflation.)

TINCUP has worked well in bringing some semblance of propriety to politics in Orange County. Before it took effect in 1978, the county had been racked by a series of scandals that resulted in 42 politicians and political aides being indicted within a three-year period. When the Board of Supervisors failed to adopt reforms, an angry public turned to TINCUP. Seeing the writing on the wall, the board simply enacted it into law.

TINCUP proved to be an effective tool because it hit at the very reason that most contributions are made in the first place--to influence the political process. Clearly, it was not in the interest of those making contributions to simultaneously preclude supervisors from voting on their projects. For that reason, TINCUP was, in effect, self-enforcing.

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However, several problems with the law have emerged in recent years. For one thing, a similar ordinance was successfully challenged in Santa Barbara on constitutional grounds because its provisions did not equally apply to all contributors. For another, PACs several years ago discovered the loophole in TINCUP and began making large contributions to supervisors, who were not precluded from later voting on issues of concern to the PACs’ financial backers. Although legal, that circumvented the intention of the campaign law. As Shirley Grindle, author of TINCUP, said: “We couldn’t pierce the PAC veil.”

Grindle will reconvene the TINCUP Campaign Reform Steering Committee in October to come up with another plan to attack the issue from the direction of limiting campaign contributions. The committee plans to present its proposal to the Board of Supervisors.

Grindle has indicated that she would like to see limits of $1,000 per election cycle for individuals, businesses and PACs. Candidates who face a run-off could raise another $1,000 per contributor. She also wants to see the contribution limits extended to all officials who run for countywide office, including the sheriff, district attorney, tax assessor, county recorder and county clerk.

Grindle’s campaign-limitation proposal seems to be on track. It is similar to laws throughout the state, as well as to federal campaign laws that have withstood constitutional tests. Contribution limits should also be easier to monitor than those under TINCUP because the limits would apply during a four-year election cycle, instead of the 48-month period now in effect.

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The Board of Supervisors should cooperate in the TINCUP committee’s efforts to draft a new law, which would require voter approval. And it should be said that this grass-roots effort is necessary because the supervisors, beneficiaries of PACs, have done nothing themselves in the cause of reform. If all goes well, a proposal could be on the June ballot.


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