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L.A. beefs up public funding for city candidates, but critics warn it will backfire

L.A. beefs up public funding for city candidates, but critics warn it will backfire
Los Angeles City Hall draped with the American flag in 2017. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

When Los Angeles laid out plans to beef up its system for giving public money to city candidates, groups like the California Clean Money Campaign applauded the move.

Doing so, they said, would help level the playing field for grass-roots candidates.

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But as the city continued to hammer out more proposed changes to the funding system, those same groups began to worry.

Unless the city made another crucial change, they warned, the plan could backfire and end up putting candidates without a thick Rolodex of donors at a disadvantage.

When the Los Angeles City Council ultimately approved the new system Wednesday, the California Clean Money Campaign, California Common Cause and other groups said they were sorely disappointed.

As it stands, “this is a system for the wealthy and the well-connected — not for the many,” said Rob Quan, an organizer with the Unrig L.A. coalition.

Los Angeles has long provided candidates with matching funds: public money that matches some of the private donations raised by qualifying candidates. The funding is supposed to bolster smaller donations so that candidates do not rely as heavily on hefty contributions from wealthy donors and corporations.

The new law approved Wednesday makes the system both simpler and more generous. In the past, candidates could get only $1, $2 or $4 for each dollar that qualified for matching funds, depending on how many signatures they gathered and whether they were running in a primary or general election.

Now candidates will be able to reap that money at a higher rate, getting $6 for every $1 they raise from city residents. Groups such as California Common Cause had argued the change was needed to get money to eligible candidates faster, allowing them to spend more time courting voters instead of donors.

But those same groups said L.A. needed to reduce another barrier for grass-roots candidates: the minimum amount of money they must raise before they can get a dime of public money. Instead, they say, the city has ended up making it much harder for many candidates to qualify for matching funds.

Instead of creating one of the strongest systems in the nation, the council “voted to codify amendments that are likely to slash the number of women and other candidates who have access” to matching funds, Trent Lange, president of the California Clean Money Campaign, said in a statement after the vote.

In the past, council candidates were unable to access matching funds until they raised at least $25,000 that met certain requirements — a much higher threshold than New York and other big cities.

Under the previous rules, council candidates could count only up to $250 of each eligible donation toward that $25,000, even if a contributor gave them $500 or $800. Now the city will count only up to $115 from each eligible donation.

That change was triggered by another adjustment meant to boost the power of smaller donations: L.A. is reducing the amount of each eligible donation that can be matched with city funds, cutting it from $250 to $115. Doing so is supposed to ensure that any donation of $115 or more — whether it was $115 or $800 — would yield the same amount of public money.

But dozens of advocacy groups, including Unrig L.A. and the Coalition to Preserve L.A., have warned that an “unintended effect” of those changes will be that candidates will have to collect at least twice as many donations to reach the $25,000 minimum and start getting matching funds, since they can count only up to $115 of each eligible donation instead of $250.

That will end up shutting out more candidates from running viable campaigns, they argued, especially those who are not incumbents.

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“You guys won’t have any competition — and that’s not democratic,” Jill Stewart, executive director of the Coalition to Preserve L.A., told council members, arguing for the city to sharply reduce the $25,000 threshold.

The California Clean Money Campaign released an analysis showing that if the city had been imposing the new requirements in recent years, only 20 candidates would have qualified for matching funds — less than half of the 44 who had actually done so. Women, in particular, would have been much less likely to qualify under the revised rules, their analysis found.

In reaction to those concerns, Councilman Mike Bonin had proposed that the city reduce the minimum threshold from $25,000 to roughly $11,500 for council candidates. That would allow a candidate to qualify for matching funds if they got 100 donations at the maximum level allowed — the same number they would have had to get under the old system, Bonin said.

But at a committee meeting Tuesday, Council President Herb Wesson instead proposed that the city only lower the requirement to $20,000, suggesting that it would be easier to pass before the council went on its winter recess.

“I believe that, if we make this adjustment, we would be in a position to get the votes tomorrow,” Wesson said Tuesday.

The City Council adopted the $20,000 threshold, along with the other changes to the funding system, on Wednesday without discussion. Wesson said he wanted to make sure the new system was in effect before candidates compete for the seat being vacated by Councilman Mitchell Englander, who is stepping down at the end of the year to take a job with an entertainment firm.

Council members voted Wednesday to hold a special election in June for the seat, with a runoff slated for August, at an estimated cost of $2.4 million. Wesson also introduced a proposal to appoint former Councilman Greig Smith to fill the seat until someone is elected.

In the meantime, Wesson said, the City Ethics Commission could continue to review the idea of paring back the minimum requirement to $11,500 for future elections. When asked about the decision, Wesson aide Caolinn Mejza said the council president believed an adjustment to lower the amount was needed but wanted more analysis because the City Ethics Commission had not fully vetted that proposal.

Mejza said the package of changes approved Wednesday was nonetheless “the most comprehensive reform to the city's campaign finance laws in several years.”

The decision disappointed the coalition of groups pushing for more changes.

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“Unfortunately, this looks to have been about changing the headlines, and not about an earnest attempt to avoid changes to the matching funds program leaving mostly incumbents and those with big-money backers able to access it,” said Michele Sutter, director of the advocacy group Money Out Voters In.

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