Hoping to make elections more competitive, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission on Monday moved to double matching funds for candidates and allow them to raise matchable funds earlier.
The new rules could further level the playing field between well-financed incumbents and challengers by significantly increasing the amount of city money given to candidates. Challengers rely heavily on small contributions from individuals instead of large donations from corporations and political action committees.
"The goal is to make city elections more competitive, so there are genuine choices," said commission President Richard Walch. "It provides funding to candidates and de-emphasizes the need to raise funds. It does it earlier and, because of the way it's structured, it emphasizes contributions from individuals and in smaller amounts, over corporations."
The matching fund program was approved by city voters in 1990. A council candidate who agrees to spend no more than $330,000 in the primary and $275,00 in a runoff election can receive up to $100,000 in matching funds in the primary and $125,000 in the runoff.
Under the proposal set for a final vote Nov. 29, individual contributions of up to $250 to City Council candidates would be matched by the city at a rate of 2 to 1 instead of the current 1 to 1, up to a total $100,000 in the primary election. For citywide candidates, including the mayor, individual contributions of up to $500 would be matched.
In addition, the new rules would allow the city to match contributions received by citywide candidates up to two years before an election. Under current rules, funds can be matched only when received within 18 months of an election.
The matching funds are provided to candidates who agree to spending limits and debates.
To further reduce the advantage of wealthy candidates and well-financed incumbents, the new rules would lift the total amount of matching funds available to candidates when others exceed spending limits. For council candidates, the cap on matching funds would be raised from $100,000 to $125,000 in primary contests in which another candidate breaches spending limits.
"Basically, our job here is to give voters a choice, to take very reasonable steps to have competitive elections in which the advantages of the wealthy candidate and the front-runner are not so great that nobody else can run," said commissioner Susan Estrich. Estrich is a USC law professor who managed Michael Dukakis' unsuccessful presidential campaign.
The panel put off a final vote to allow more input on whether to apply the new rules to the 2001 election or the 2003 election.
A lawyer for City Atty. James K. Hahn, a candidate for mayor in 2001, told the commission that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the election season, noting that Hahn began raising funds for mayor in April.
"We take a strong position against changing the rules midstream, even though some of the rules would be very positive for my client's race," said Colleen McAndrews, an attorney for Hahn.
Council aide Francine Oschin, a likely candidate for the west San Fernando Valley's 3rd District council seat in 2001, also voiced concern, saying she made a decision to not file until January because that is when the current rules allow contributions to be matched.
In the 3rd District, Scott Schreiber has already filed, giving him a head start, especially with the new rules, Oschin said.
"It would have a chilling effect on anyone considering a run for council," Oschin said.
In the 1993 election the city paid out $4.8 million in matching funds. If the new rules providing a 2-1 match had been in place, the city would have paid out $6.8 million that year, according to Rebecca Avila, executive director of the Ethics Commission.