Public financing on ballot

March 29, 2010


With California’s politics messed up seemingly beyond repair, it’s not surprising two reform initiatives are on the June 8 ballot. I earlier wrote about Proposition 14, the “Top Two Primaries Act.”

The other initiative is Proposition 15, which would establish a pilot program of public tax-funding of campaigns. It has three major components:

* First, the existing ban on public funding of elections would be lifted – permanently.

* Second, for a single office, that of Secretary of State, it would give candidates the option of public financing for the elections in 2014 and 2018. After that, this option would end unless renewed by law.

Accepting the public funds would be optional for a candidate. If the candidate chooses to accept the funds, he first must raise $5 contributions from individual donors. The numbers are: 7,500 individual contributions (total money: $37,500) if from a major party, or half that from a minor party.

Depending on complicated formulas described here by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, candidates then would receive from $200,000 to $5.2 million in public funding. They would have to participate in debates, and could not use their personal funds in the campaign.

* Third, to pay for the public funding, the fee on registered state lobbyists would be increased from $25 every two years to $700. According to the Leg Analyst’s estimate, it would raise between $5 million and $8 million per four-year election cycle.

Major supporters include the League of Women Voters, California Common Cause, AARP, AFSCME and the Sierra Club.

Major opponents include the California Chamber of Commerce, the state Department of Finance and the California Political Practices Commission.

The Case for Reform

Backers of Prop. 15 contend, in the argument that will be on the ballot:

Special interest campaign contributors have too much influence over our state government and must be stopped.

California government is broken. The state budget crisis is crippling our economy. Education funding is at a historic low. Vital services for seniors and people with disabilities are being decimated. Businesses are closing their doors while middle class families struggle to make ends meet….

According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, over $1 billion has been raised by California politicians since 2000. All this fundraising buys access for the special interests, shutting out the rest of us.

We need to change the way we finance election campaigns so politicians stay focused on the job we sent them to accomplish. [Emphasis in original.]

The $1 billion figure over the past decade comes to about $2.70 a year for each California resident.

Opponents of Prop. 15 agree that the system isn’t working. “Clearly, people are unhappy with the political system and the political process, especially given the apparent disfunctionality in the Legislature,” Richard Wiebe told me; he’s spokesman for “But having taxpayers finance political campaigns isn’t going to reform the system. Special interests will still have influence. Taxpayers don’t want their money spent on attack ads. We have scarce resources in California and don’t want those resources spent on political campaigns.”

Free Speech Controversy

The main objection to Prop. 15 is on free-speech, First Amendment grounds. To restrict candidate spending “is a restriction of free speech,” Wiebe contended.

The pro-15 position is that candidates are not required to participate in the system, but can raise and spend money the old way:

Candidates who chose not to participate will have no more spending restrictions at all than under current law.

At issue also could be the 1976 Buckley ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld unlimited campaign expenditures from personal funds. “Prop. 15 was written in compliance with that,” Helen Hutchison told me; she’s the government director of the League of Women Voters of California.  She said the initiative was “modeled after Arizona and Maine” reforms that so far have not been rejected by the courts.

Wiebe had a different take. “It’s a pretty safe assumption that Prop. 15 would be challenged on constitutional grounds,” should it pass, he said.

And the $700 bi-yearly fee – or tax – on lobbyists also could be considered a restriction on free speech, like a special tax on newspapers. The pro-15 side doesn’t think so. “We don’t think it’s an inordinately high fee for the lobbyists,” Hutchinson said.

The fee is aimed at a group, lobbyists, not specially liked by the public. But “who is not a special interest?” asked  Jack Pitney when I talked to him; he’s Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, and author of American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy and Citizenship. “In Federalist 10, James Madison reminded us that faction is in the nature of man.”

Arizona’s Campaign Financing


As Hutchinson pointed out, Prop. 15 was modeled on an Arizona initiative narrowly passed by voters in 1998, the Clean Elections Act. It set up taxpayer financing of elections for all statewide offices and the state legislature. Twelve years later, one legal challenge remains active, by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

“It chills the speech of private candidates,” Le Templar, communications director at the institute, told me of the basis of the group’s challenge. “When a private candidate raises money, the amount of money going to private candidates also rises, so they’re just raising money for their opponents. It defeats free speech.”

Prop. 15 has something similar. The Leg Analyst notes that, under Prop. 15, “The amount of state funds that a candidate would receive would go up if an opponent spent more private funds.”

In the most recent legal action concerning the Arizona law, in January U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver ruled the law’s matching-funds provision violated the First Amendment. Appeals continue.

As to Prop. 15 legal actions, Pitney observed, “It’s likely this measure’s immediate effect would be to help election lawyers.”

Past California Initiatives

Prop. 15 isn’t the first time California voters have been presented with public-funding of campaigns. In 2000, Proposition 25 would have provided $55 million in tax money for state political campaigns. It was rejected by 65 percent of voters.

In 2006, Proposition 89 would have imposed a new tax on corporations to raise $200 million a year for public financing of elections. It was rejected by 74 percent of voters.

Prop. 15’s chances probably are about as bad. Even though it is a more modest, pilot program, its key feature is the repeal of the ban on public funding of campaigns. If passed, that would open the door to the Legislature, by itself, putting public financing in a future budget.

John Seiler, an editorial writer with The Orange County Register for 19 years, is a reporter and analyst for His email: [email protected].

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