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Column: If the public doesn’t finance political candidates, special interests will happily step in

Voting booths
Voters always complain about politicians being beholden to special interests. If they want to change that, they can support public financing for campaigns, George Skelton writes. Above, a voting center in Orange County.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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American politics will never be perfectly clean because politicians represent and reflect imperfect humans.

Yet voters unreasonably expect the people they elect to be, on the whole, better than themselves.

It’s actually more of a hope — even a demand — than an expectation. Citizens have become accustomed to expect the worst because of scandal after scandal.

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In a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, adults were asked whether they thought the state government was “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” or was “run for the benefit of all of the people.”

No surprise: 67% answered “big interests.” Only 31% replied “the people.”

Although predictable, that’s disappointing and sad.

Most politicians I’ve been around over the decades have been relatively ethical — just as most voters who elect them are basically honest. Voters tend to elect people with similar values.

But there are always some rotten apples. That’s nature.

It’s also human nature — certainly in America — to strive toward perfection even when we know that reaching that goal is impossible, at least for more than a short period.

Therefore, legislation has been introduced in Sacramento that could reduce the influence of special interest money in politics.

It would allow California governments — the state, counties and all cities — to enact some form of public financing of election campaigns.

Look, running for office costs barrels of money, especially in California. The money must come from somewhere. And as I’ve written many times, either the public buys the politicians or the special interests eagerly will — and often do.

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In California, some cities are allowed to set up public financing systems but others, illogically, are not. Neither are counties or the state.

Los Angeles city operates a public financing system. Public funds match private contributions.

For every $1 up to a certain amount that a city resident donates to a council or citywide candidate, taxpayers kick in $6. But candidates receiving public funds must agree to campaign spending limits.

L.A. spent roughly $12.8 million on matching funds for the 2022 elections.

San Francisco has a similar system.

But Oakland has a different partial public funding method: Each registered voter receives four $25 “Democracy Dollars” they can donate to qualified city candidates.

Long Beach and Berkeley also have public funding systems.

Those five entities are allowed to because they’re so-called charter cities. By an odd quirk, general law cities — there are 357 of them — are not permitted to enact public financing for campaigns.

That happened because of a 1988 amendment to the 1974 Political Reform Act, a ballot measure sponsored by young Secretary of State Jerry Brown, who was running for governor on a post-Watergate platform of “clean up Sacramento.”

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Brown’s measure required more substantive public disclosure of campaign contributions and spending. He left out public financing because he was afraid opponents would attack the initiative as a scheme to spend tax dollars on politicians.

“We were worried Republicans would say ‘no to public financing,’ use that against us in the campaign and it wouldn’t pass,” recalls Bob Stern, who helped Brown write the act and is a longtime political reformer.

The measure passed overwhelmingly and later was amended by voters with the current public financing restriction.

For the record:

12:28 p.m. April 13, 2023An earlier version of this article stated that Gov. Jerry Brown wrote the current restriction on public financing into his 1974 political reform act. The restriction actually was later amended into the act by another sponsor.

In 2016, the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Brown signed a bill to remove the ban. But the courts ruled the question must go to the voters because of the amended 1974 act.

That’s what the current legislation would do — send the question back to the voters in November 2024.

Two identical bills — SB 24 and AB 270 — have been introduced by veteran state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) and Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose).

Umberg says he’s not particularly sold on public financing but wants to allow local entities to experiment with it if they choose.

“I’ve been trying to figure out a way to reduce the influence of money in politics,” he says, “and I haven’t figured it out. I’d be interested in seeing what local communities would do.

“States are called laboratories of democracy. Cities and counties could be laboratories of addressing the influence of money in politics.”

Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), who authored the 2016 bill, says: “This is a ‘let 1000 flowers bloom’ issue.”

“The cost of campaigns is increasingly out of control. It puts so much power in the hands of the wealthy and special interests. I don’t see [public financing] as a magic bullet. But it can make our campaigns cleaner.”

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In last year’s elections, $311 million in private money was raised for legislative and other state races.

Even if the public paid for it all, that would have accounted for only roughly one-tenth of 1% of the state budget. But no one is proposing that, although it’s undoubtedly a dream of Trent Lange, president of California Clean Money Campaign, a reform group.

“Public financing of campaigns is the best investment taxpayers can ever possibly make,” Lange insists.

“Public financing is a great idea in the abstract, but I don’t know what difference it makes given that independent expenditure committees are unlimited,” says Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, former president of the L.A. City Ethics Commission.

Independent expenditure committees operate separately from candidates and have no spending limits. They’re a relatively new political parasite that can overwhelm election races.

That’s because of one of the silliest-ever decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court: a 1976 ruling that money is speech and thereby protected by the 1st Amendment in many political situations. And all the time I’d thought that money was property.

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But Levinson points to one plus for public financing.

“You probably get good candidates who otherwise wouldn’t be able to run,” she says. “It gives them an early step up.”

If any cities or counties want to try it, they at least should not be barred by the state.

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