Picking on California’s lobbyists

Full public financing of elections is the Questing Beast of campaign reformers, those good souls who seek a way to cut the link between politicians and the businesses, unions and other groups that fund campaigns and expect something in return. The reformers’ hunt is a noble one. They are attempting to rescue democracy, as it is practiced in this country, from the corrupting taint of money. They are trying to ensure that the basic unit of an election is the citizen’s vote, not the donor’s dollar.

Their latest attempt to corner their quarry takes the form of AB 583 by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley). This creative bill would provide voluntary, full public financing to candidates running to become California’s chief elections official, secretary of state. What better pilot project for “clean money” than the state position that ought to be most immune from special interest funds? Candidates who want to participate raise $5 each from 7,500 registered voters -- enough to make clear that they are legitimate contenders, but in amounts low enough to avoid any hint that they are beholden to some big-moneyed interest. The rest of their campaign is funded by the public. Candidates who want to raise their campaign money the old-fashioned way are free to do so.

But about that public funding. The Times was intrigued with the notion behind the 2006 public-financing ballot measure, Proposition 89, but could not endorse it because it unfairly raised the money to fund campaigns from higher corporate taxes. Picking on an unpopular interest to fund something new is the oldest trick in the book, and it makes for bad public policy. AB 583 designates an even more unpopular group as the funding source. Smokers? No, but good guess. Bad drivers? We wish.

No, the money would be raised by jacking up fees on lobbyists. That’s a big problem, not because lobbyists are beloved in California but because the fees they pay should be used to cover the costs of regulating them, not the costs of a new program, however well-intentioned it may be. Lobbying, believe it or not, is an honest profession as long as it is practiced honestly. Go ahead and raise lobbyist fees if that’s what is needed to provide the appropriate level of oversight and enforcement. Otherwise, public financing should be just that -- financing by the public.

Of course, a broad tax for publicly financing elections would be politically untenable. But it’s difficult to identify an alternative that doesn’t unfairly pick on a particular group. That quandary is what makes the reformers’ quest so frustrating. Still, the hunt is noble, and if the reformers keep at it, they may one day capture their beast.