Prop. 15 would test government funding of California state elections

California voters are being asked on the June 8 ballot to approve an experiment in state funding of political campaigns.

Backers of Proposition 15 say it would reduce the corrupting influence of special-interest money. Opponents say it would be a costly mistake, full of loopholes allowing politicians to continue benefiting from moneyed supporters.

Proposition 15: An article in Friday’s LATExtra section about a ballot measure to lift a ban on state funding of political campaigns said the ban was contained in the state Constitution. The ban is in state law approved by voters, but not in the Constitution. —

The measure, called the California Fair Elections Act, would test the waters on government funding by applying it only to the elections for secretary of state in 2014 and 2018. Each of those elections would cost the state an estimated $6 million, with most of the money coming from an increase in registration fees paid to the state by lobbyists, lobbying firms and their clients.

Candidates who agreed to limits on their campaign spending, and who demonstrate viability by receiving $5 donations from 7,500 registered voters, would get at least $1 million in state funds for a primary election and $1.3 million for a general election. The money raised from voters would go to the state to help defray election costs.

The measure would delete from the state Constitution a ban on the use of public funds for political campaigns.

“Comprehensive campaign finance reforms that include strong public financing of candidates who adhere to strict spending limits do scale back the ability of fat cats to purchase elections for their favored politicians,”’ said Derek Cressman, Western states regional director for Common Cause. The measure is also backed by AARP, the League of Women Voters of California and the California Labor Federation.

Opponents, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., say interest groups would still be able to support favored candidates by contributing to their ballot-measure committees and with other campaign activity conducted independently. Such campaigns are not subject to limits on the contributions they receive or the money they spend.

“Campaign finance reform is like a water balloon: You squeeze it at one end and it pops up someplace else,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Jarvis group.

Opponents also say the experiment could pave the way for a wider program that might tap other public money, including general tax revenue, for campaigns at a time when the state is cutting back on essential services because of a budget crisis.

Proposition 15 was put on the ballot by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It would raise the state fee used to pay for the cost of registering and processing regular financial disclosure statements by lobbyists and their clients. The fee, paid every two years by 4,300 lobbyists, lobbying firms and their clients, would go from $25 to $700.

By proposing to tap lobbyists and their many wealthy clients, the measure has riled opposition forces that so far have raised about $120,000 to fight it, after unsuccessfully lobbying the government against it. But supporters began fundraising a year before them and have raised $300,000.

A third of that sum came from the California Nurses Assn. The nurses strategize that if the experiment is successful and voters eventually decide to apply it to other state offices, it could stop healthcare corporations — which often disagree with the union — from being able to influence lawmakers by contributing large sums to their campaigns.

Trent Lange, the head of the campaign for Proposition 15, said the campaign gained traction after the U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down most federal limits on corporate campaign spending as a violation of free speech.

Programs providing public funding of campaigns have been launched in seven other states, including Arizona and Maine, since 2000. In both of those states, the majority of state legislators were elected with public funds in programs aimed at reducing the influence of special interests.

A study by the Common Cause Education Fund found that winning candidates raised more money than their general election opponents 85% of the time in California, compared with 33% of the time in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, three states with public financing of campaigns.

However, there have been some problems with Arizona’s law, according to Rudolfo Espino, a political scientist at Arizona State University.

“The [consensus] is it had good intentions but it hasn’t worked out too well,” Espino said.

Some candidates have allegedly looked for ways to get around the spending limits. In one case, the state of Arizona is investigating whether a legislative candidate used his business to hire a consultant to benefit his campaign.

Cressman said that someone always tries to find a way around any new campaign finance restriction but that strong enforcement can discourage such attempts. He said an Arizona court ordered one state legislator there to step down from office after allegedly violating the spending limits imposed as part of the public financing plan.