In an effort to reduce the influence of deep-pocketed campaign donors and level the playing field for grassroots challengers, the Los Angeles City Council voted recently to significantly increase the amount of public financing that candidates for city offices could receive.
Los Angeles’ matching funds program is now among the most generous in the country, with qualified candidates for local office able to receive $6 in public funds for every $1 they raise from city residents. That 6:1 match — up from the previous range of 1:1 to 4:1 — would stretch a $115 donation to a council candidate into an $800 contribution — the maximum allowed in local elections. The city is expected to pay the higher match out of unspent funds that have accumulated in the program, which receives $3 million a year from taxpayers.
But campaign finance reform advocates warn that the changes adopted by the City Council could actually hurt — not help — grassroots candidates by making it harder for them to qualify for matching funds. That’s because the new rules require candidates to collect significantly more contributions before they qualify for matching funds.
It doesn’t seem like the City Council intended to make it harder for candidates to qualify for matching funds. But new rules have done just that.
The amount of money candidates must raise to be eligible for public funds — $25,000 in council races — is not changing. But they’ll need to collect more than twice as many contributions to hit that threshold — 217 instead of 100. That’s because only the first $115 of any donation would count toward the $25,000 threshold, down from the current $250. The idea is to tie eligibility for matching funds to a candidate’s ability to draw financial support from ordinary members of the community, rather than from deep-pocketed donors and special interests.
But that works to the advantage of politicians who are already in office. “You might as well call this the incumbency protection act,” one advocate of campaign finance reform told the council.
Indeed. Incumbents and established politicians can hold a fundraiser or flip through their Rolodex to collect 200-plus contributions fairly easily. It’s much harder for first-time candidates to drum up donations in that kind of volume.
According to an analysis by the California Clean Money Campaign, the new rules would have denied matching dollars to numerous candidates who qualified for funding in the last three municipal elections. And the candidates who did qualify would have done so much later in the election cycle — some as little as two weeks before election day — when the additional funds are less helpful.
In response, Councilman Mike Bonin has proposed lowering the fundraising threshold to $11,500 for council candidates. That would allow council candidates to qualify for matching funds if they collected as few as 100 donations of $115 or more — the same number they needed to collect under the old rules. There would be a similar reduction for citywide candidates, who were also affected by the changes.
That proposal remains in limbo. In the meantime, the council has adopted Council President Herb Wesson’s proposal to lower the threshold to $20,000 for council candidates — a $5,000 reduction. That was a modest tweak to make sure the new, more generous matching fund system is in place before the special election in June for the seat recently vacated by Councilman Mitch Englander. Wesson said he wanted the Ethics Commission to do a more thorough vetting of Bonin’s proposal before lowering the threshold further for all future elections.
That’s reasonable. It doesn’t seem like the City Council intended to make it harder for candidates to qualify for matching funds. But new rules have done just that, and they should be changed to level the playing field. Nevertheless, it’s also worth having the Ethics Commission analyze how many contributions candidates should have to amass to qualify for matching funds, and whether the city can afford to lower the threshold significantly.
Right now the matching funds program has $20 million on hand, and the more generous matching fund program will eat into the surplus. If the demand for matching dollars is so great that it threatens to overwhelm the fund, the city will have to scale back the aid. It’s important to strike the right balance to keep the matching fund program solvent and no costlier to taxpayers.