ANY EFFORT TO sever the financial link between political candidates and the special interests that help put them in office and keep them there merits serious consideration. If candidates could choose full public financing, as they can in Arizona and Maine, they would be able to spend more time discussing issues with voters and less time pursuing potential donors for cash.
Proposition 89 brings the so-called clean money movement to California. It boasts most of the hallmarks of voluntary public financing programs that have proved popular elsewhere. Candidates can either accept public funds or raise their own money. If they accept public money, they still would have to raise a small amount on their own to prove their viability. Then they would receive enough cash, without strings, to run a viable campaign, and they would be required to reject private donations. They also would be eligible for extra money to keep pace with a wealthy, self-funded opponent or an independent expenditure campaign.
So far so good. Candidates who participate in the system would find themselves free to say “no” to any business interest, labor union or political group offering to spend, or threatening to withhold, campaign money and expecting special treatment in return.
In the details, however, Proposition 89 runs aground. The funding would come from a tax on corporations and financial institutions. Voters can disagree over whether California overtaxes or undertaxes corporations and banks, but it is indisputable that using them, exclusively, as the source of election funding focuses a burden on one interest that should be shared by all.
California elections may require too much money for all of it to come from the state’s general fund, as it does in Maine, or from a surcharge on civil and criminal fines, as it largely does in Arizona. But a tax only on corporations and banks to fund an election reform program is unwise and unfair.
The measure worsens both the insult and the injury by sharply limiting a corporation’s ability to spend money supporting or opposing a ballot measure. It makes sense that the backers of Proposition 89 included initiatives in their reforms; they correctly saw that special interests who could no longer purchase a candidate would turn their attention — and their wallets — to ballot measures.
But the way to diminish the corrosive power of special-interest money in elections, including initiative elections, is not to cut off access for one interest and allow others (such as labor unions, homeowner groups, environmentalists or anyone else) to keep spending.
Voters should reject Proposition 89 as a measure that proponents claim would reduce the power of all moneyed interests but instead singles out one — corporations — for unequal treatment.
That should be the beginning of the discussion, though, not the end. As long as the dollar and not the vote is the basic unit of California politics, special interests will continue to own politicians. It’s time for voters to figure out how to buy them back.