L.A. tackles campaign donations -- badly

On Thursday, the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission will consider a staff recommendation to more than double the amounts that donors can give to candidates for city office, raising the limit in City Council races from $500 to $1,100 and in citywide campaigns from $1,000 to $2,100. The proposal makes some sense — contribution limits should be adjusted periodically to reflect inflation — but it is poorly timed and excessively large. The commission should reject it or, barring that, amend it to correct its defects.

The problem with the recommended increases is not that they will fuel a spending spree in Los Angeles politics. That’s already underway, and major donors inclined to give beyond the limits already have plenty of ways to do so. Big contributors such as organized labor, California Indian tribes and companies doing business with the city well know that they can establish independent expenditure committees and use them to advance their candidates or thwart their foes, so long as those campaigns are not conducted in conjunction with those of the candidates themselves. That avenue for political giving has been much in evidence during this year’s presidential campaign — billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife gave political action committees supporting Newt Gingrich $10 million in two weeks because of the limits on direct contributions to candidates — and will surely surface in the city campaigns this year and next.

Moreover, contribution limits should not be frozen at one level for all time. Limits that are too low can impede a candidate’s ability to wage a campaign. The Supreme Court has gone so far as to hold unduly low limits unconstitutional, striking down a Vermont law in 2006 that limited contributions to statewide candidates to $400. Los Angeles is far bigger than Vermont, and its limits today place it at the bottom of the five largest cities in the country. New York, for instance, allows contributions of $4,950 in citywide races, Houston allows up to $5,000, and Chicago has no limits at all. And although the City Charter specifies that the limits should increase along with inflation, the Ethics Commission has never approved a hike.

All of that argues for an increase, but the timing of this proposal undermines it, as do the amounts. The campaigns for citywide offices will not be concluded until next year, but they have already begun. Two members of the City Council — Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry — as well as City Controller Wendy Greuel are announced candidates for mayor, and two candidates from outside the city government — radio show host Kevin James and businessman Austin Beutner — have begun raising money for their campaigns. The same is true of the races for city attorney and city controller, for which a mixture of incumbents and outsiders are lining up to run.


Raising the limits now would give an advantage to incumbents, who can turn to constituents and others with business before the city, and disadvantage those candidates who can’t so easily turn on the spigot. Incumbents tend to benefit from campaign finance rules, which are, after all, often written by incumbents. But this race is underway. It has taken shape under one set of rules; to change them in the middle of the campaign is unfair to those who would be competitively set back.

Then there is the size of the proposed increases. Because the Ethics Commission has failed for years to build in modest annual increases in the contribution limits, it is now trying to make up for lost time; rather than seeking an increase of a few percentage points, it’s asking to more than double the allowable contributions. But that is too large a change in too short a time.

Keep in mind that most Los Angeles elections play out in two phases, a first round and then, if no candidate wins a majority, a decisive run-off. What that means is that should the proposed change be approved as is, contributors could begin donating as much as $4,200 to a citywide candidate, half in the first round and half in the run-off. That’s beyond the reach of many middle-class contributors and thus ensures that much of the additional money would come from lobbyists and others with business before the city — precisely the interests that already have a leg up. Today’s limits, however flawed, have helped to preserve a place for average citizens to pay for city politics; the proposed changes would substantially and abruptly alter that.

As the commission considers increasing contribution levels for city offices, it also is taking up similar proposed hikes for contributing to school board campaigns, as well as for the amount of money that politicians may raise and spend through their “officeholder accounts” — special funds that many use for community projects or causes. Those proposals contain the same merits — and defects — of the recommendations for contributions to city candidates. Upward adjustment is warranted, but care should be given to the size of the increase and its timing.

Still another recommendation would permit children who make political contributions to do so without having those gifts count toward their parents’ limits — if, that is, the children can demonstrate that they are making the gifts independently of their parents. That may be a solution in search of a problem: Is Los Angeles really awash in young people eager to fund political campaigns? The proposed change would parallel state law, but commissioners should consider that it could increase the burden on city officials to weigh claims of children’s independence, as well as providing an opportunity for unscrupulous parents to try to funnel a bit more to candidates of their choice.

To pick those nits with the recommendations is not to argue for the status quo. The commission can and should approve increasing the contribution limits. But it should authorize a modest hike, not a doubling of today’s limits, and it should delay implementation until the conclusion of the current campaigns, which end next summer. Those steps would modernize Los Angeles campaign finance without upending the current races or abruptly transforming the character of political fundraising.