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20 Years After Prop. 9, Reform Still Elusive

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the voters’ enthusiastic approval of a ballot measure they were told would make the state safe from political corruption.

That’s right. Proposition 9, we were assured, would “put an end to corruption in politics and (make) politicians directly responsible to the people--not to purchased demands of special interests.”

So much for noble goals. The 14 convictions generated by an FBI sting operation attest to the fact that political corruption festered at the Capitol long after Jerry Brown, Ralph Nader and other reformers persuaded 70% of the electorate to approve Proposition 9.

To be sure, some of Proposition 9 has been a success, mainly the requirement of campaign finance disclosures. One feature has been a joke: the $10 monthly limit on what lobbyists can spend entertaining a legislator--"enough for two hamburgers and a Coke,” Brown said back then.

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But most significantly, two essential elements--spending limits for statewide campaigns and a ban on lobbyist contributions--were thrown out by the courts.

“The problem in campaign finance,” notes University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, “is that we want completely clean elections with no tainted money--and we want full and unfettered rights of free speech and association. You cannot have both. If you’re not going to tinker with the 1st Amendment, you have to accept the fact that you can’t dam the flow of political money.”

Perhaps not dam, but control. In recent years, legislators and reformers have wrestled with proposals aimed at cleaning up what former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp in 1990 called “the Sacramento swamp.”

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Voters have indicated they’re not fussy about how politics is cleaned up--just do it.

In 1988, they approved a sweeping reform measure, Proposition 68, authorizing partial public financing of legislative campaigns. On the same ballot, they approved Proposition 73, which specifically banned public financing. Because 73 got slightly more votes, it prevailed. But a federal court, basically on a technicality, stripped Proposition 73 of its key feature limiting campaign contributions.

Partial taxpayer financing of local campaigns, together with limits on contributions and spending, have been authorized by voters in Los Angeles and Long Beach. Voters also have imposed contribution limits in six other major cities.

But statewide, voters have been whipsawed and confused. And 20 years after Proposition 9, there still are no limits on contributions or spending in state or legislative races (except in special elections) and no public financing.

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That brings us to today in the Capitol, with 60% of the legislators’ campaign bills being footed by special interest PACs. Another 15% comes from political parties and legislative leaders, who also rely on PACs.

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“It is time to put the B.S. aside,” veteran Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) told his colleagues last week during a floor debate. “Money poisons politics and corrupts this place. Public financing is the key to reform.”

Democratic politicians generally buy that, but most Republicans don’t, including Gov. Pete Wilson. The governor says there are better ways to spend tax money than on politicians’ campaigns. That has a nice ring, but ignores the reality of special interests outbidding the public for political influence with their big contributions.

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Political self-interest also weighs heavily. Republicans tend to favor limiting the size of contributions because they have many wealthy friends who can write checks. Democrats don’t, so they like the idea of public subsidies. Incumbents of both parties like spending limits because they crimp little-known challengers, but the Supreme Court has ruled they’re only allowable with public financing. The reform issue is heating up again as legislators scramble to adjourn their 1994 session.

Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) is sponsoring a bill that would affect only fall legislative races. It runs the gamut: partial public financing with limits on contributions and spending. There would be extra public funds for candidates whose rich opponents refuse to abide by the limits.

The bill passed both houses and is in a conference committee. It is backed by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and also Senate GOP leader Ken Maddy (R-Fresno). If signed by Wilson, it would go on the 1996 ballot.

“Not a chance,” predicts a Wilson adviser. Perhaps next year when he’s free of reelection jitters.

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Or when Kathleen Brown--Jerry’s sister--is governor. She’s a strong supporter of public financing.


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