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Big Money and Ethics Are Incompatible : Campaigns: L.A’s new public-financing law is a step toward eradicating conditions that created an Alan Robbins.

<i> Benjamin Bycel is executive director of the City Ethics Commission</i>

If the eventual downfall of a political heavyweight such as state Sen. Alan Robbins (who has been saddled with political and legal problems for years) was so predictable, how did he get reelected time and time again?

At least a good part of the answer is in how political campaigns are financed. In Washington, in Sacramento and until recently in Los Angeles, most campaign funds came not from individual citizens but from special interests with a strong financial interest in the outcome of an election. These special interests are unlikely to be much concerned with the ethical behavior of the incumbent officeholder as long as they have access.

So the war chests of incumbents are usually brimming with contributions from people who may have little interest in good government. And war chests are usually all that matters in campaigns.

But in Los Angeles, we already have in place a mechanism to stop this torrent of campaign money and many of the ethical problems that accompany it. We can lead the way for state and national reforms that could prevent another Robbins or Alan Cranston case.

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Politicians are not capable of policing themselves. So, in June, 1990, Los Angeles voters passed Measure H, which created not just a sorely needed Ethics Commission, but also a comprehensive campaign-financing plan that includes contribution limits, spending limits and partial public financing of campaigns. While the plan, which is now before the state Supreme Court, is not a complete cure for the money cancer that is eating the body politic, it can help to limit the pervasive influence of special-interest money in elections. The commission is confident that the Court will uphold the law and that it will be in effect for the 1993 mayoral campaign.

Candidates can make use of matching public funds on a voluntary basis. This means that for every dollar raised in small contributions from individuals, a candidate could, by adhering to certain conditions, receive a dollar in public matching funds. The city will have $8 million available for this purpose.

To be eligible, a candidate for mayor must raise at least $150,000 in contributions of $500 or less from individuals, not corporations. A City Council candidate must raise at least $25,000 in contributions of $250 or less. The candidate must have an opponent who has qualified for matching funds and must agree to limit use of personal funds for the campaign. Candidates who receive public funds must agree to at least one debate in the primary and two during the general campaign.

Finally, there is a maximum that each candidate can receive from public funds and an overall campaign expenditure ceiling. For example, a City Council candidate can only spend $550,000 for both the primary and the general election.

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Another important provision in the Los Angeles law bans campaign contributions for 24 months after each election, ending the cycle of year-round campaigning; there is a 30-month ban for mayor. This applies to all major candidates, not just those accepting public money.

Six years ago, the independent California Commission on Campaign Financing called political fund-raising in California “a new gold rush” and recommended, among other things, public matching funds.

Now, we can stop the gold rush in Los Angeles. Every candidate for elected city office should be urged by voters to participate in the matching funds program.


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