L.A., San Diego lift limits on corporate and union spending in elections


Los Angeles and San Diego will no longer enforce limits on how much money corporations and unions can directly give in city elections, bowing to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that found such caps unconstitutional.

In Los Angeles, the city’s Ethics Commission passed a resolution saying it would no longer ban corporations and unions from using money from their own treasuries to expressly advocate for or against a candidate. The resolution, adopted last week, was made public Wednesday.

In San Diego, city officials were pushed by a federal lawsuit brought by the local Republican Party, a construction industry group and several individuals. A federal judge on Thursday ordered the city to immediately lift its law placing limits on how much money corporations and labor groups can pump into local elections.

Ron Nehring, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the ruling would not favor one party over another but would make it easier for a challenger to defeat an incumbent.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonprofit group that advocates in favor of campaign finance laws, had a different take. Feng said the ruling would make it easier for special interests to “drown out regular citizens’ voices.”

“The big concern is that both on the corporate and the union side this is going to lead to an arms race in political spending, “ she said.

In Los Angeles, the ruling was not expected to impose dramatic changes on the contributions made by unions and businesses, which have had a history of spending significant sums in various campaigns.

Last year, the union that represents employees at the Department of Water and Power spent more than $148,000 to help then-City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel win her campaign to become city controller. Months later, two business groups -- the Central City Assn. and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce -- spent nearly $39,000 in an unsuccessful effort to help onetime entertainment industry executive Christine Essel replace Greuel on the council.

Corporations and unions, however, will no longer need to form political action committees or participate in larger advocacy groups to spend money on behalf of city candidates, Ethics Commission officials said. Meanwhile, other counties and cities are looking at their own campaign laws and making changes to ensure they don’t face suits similar to the one brought against San Diego.

In Ventura County, supervisors are expected to amend a campaign finance ordinance that placed limits on contributions from so-called independent expenditure committees.

Supervisor Steve Bennett, an advocate of tough campaign finance limits, said the board would attempt to raise disclosure requirements so that voters know who is contributing to candidates.