Campaign finance reform plan unveiled

California should move away from fewer larger donors and into small contributions and public campaign financing, says the state’s foremost expert on campaign finance.

Bob Stern, who wrote the 1974 California Political Reform Act, has released a new blueprint for reform through his nonpartisan think tank at the Center for Governmental Studies.

Click here to read the full report.

I have pasted the news release below.

New Study Urges Lower Contribution Limits, Loophole Closures and Public Matching Funds for Small Contributions

The Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) today recommended that California adopt a comprehensive new approach to the way state candidates raise funds to conduct their campaigns. Its new study, Public Campaign Financing in California: A Model Law for 21st Century Reform urges replacing larger, private campaign contributors with small campaign donors and public campaign financing.

An electronic copy of Public Campaign Financing in California: A Model Law for 21st Century Reform is available under “Publications” on the CGS website and on the Policy Archive website.

According to study author and CGS President Bob Stern, “Candidates throughout the nation have reported that public funding strengthens discussions between them and their constituents, because they are not forced to spend all of their time fundraising. Public financing also reduces the pressures to respond to the needs of large contributors.”

New Approach in Model Law

CGS’ proposed California Campaign Reform Act would establish a hybrid campaign financing system of private contributions and public funding. It would create a powerful incentive for candidates to engage in broad based, grassroots fundraising. It required them to generate a large number of small, private contributions exclusively from California residents to qualify for public funds.

Lower Contribution Limits

California law now allows donors to contribute $3,900 to State Assembly and Senate candidates, $6,500 to statewide candidates other than the governor and $25,900 to gubernatorial candidates during the primary and again during the general election. Federal law only allows individual donors to give $2,500 to candidates for U.S. Senate — ten times less than donors can give a candidate for California governor — although both candidates appeal to the same number of voters during their campaigns.

Tracy Westen, CGS CEO, commented, “Allowing couples to give over $100,000 (the maximum for the primary and the general elections) to gubernatorial candidates creates the appearance that large contributors have far more influence than small contributors, that small contributors have little influence over policymaking, that political decisions are skewed by money and that the political system itself is more responsive toward the wealthy.”

The CGS model law sets a contribution limit of $2,500 per candidate per election. This is the same as the federal limit, which applies to Presidential, U.S. Senate and House candidates. Such a limit would reduce California contributions by as much as 90% in the case of the governor’s race.

Public Financing

The CGS proposal requires candidates to raise relatively small amounts from a large number of residents to qualify for public funding – thus insuring that only serious candidates receive public money, increasing participation by smaller donors, attracting more candidates to races and limiting public expenditures.

Once candidates have qualified for public financing, they would receive public funding in two steps. First, a base funding amount will be established by determining what winning candidates spent in the last two elections for the office being sought. All eligible candidates who face competitive opponents would first receive 50% of this base amount in a lump sum public contribution.

Second, these candidates will then be eligible to receive additional public funds that would match small donations that they raise between $5 and $100. To give candidates the incentive to raise smaller donations, such gifts from California residents would be matched at a 4:1 ratio. Thus, a $20 donation would be matched by a $100 public disbursement up to 100% of the base campaign amount. A candidate in a competitive race can receive up to 150% of the base amount (a 50% initial grant plus matching funds up to 100%).

Public financing would give candidates an opportunity to run competitive campaigns against wealthy self-financed candidates even if it could not match the spending of these wealthy candidates. With the public funds, challengers would have a chance to get started, become visible, and communicate their messages to the electorate.

New Funding Sources

Funding sources for the public campaign financing program would include a 10% surtax on civil and criminal penalties plus a legislative appropriation from the General Fund. This funding model is based on a very successful Arizona public financing program that consistently has enough funds from the surtax; in fact, Arizona’s public financing fund has returned over $64 million to the state’s General Fund since 2003.

Ban on Off-Year Fundraising

In a significant departure from current fundraising practices, the model law would ban off-year fundraising for all state candidates. This ensures that campaign funds are given for campaign purposes, not to reward contributors with legislation or with ongoing access to elected officials making important policy decisions.

Closed Loopholes

The model law also closes significant loopholes in California’s existing campaign finance law. A strict contribution limit would apply to all money raised by candidates and elected officials from a single source. This restriction would apply to money raised by candidate committees as well as amounts for ballot measure committees, officeholder accounts, political party fundraising, and leadership political action committees. Therefore, a legislative candidate with a contribution limit of $2,500 per election could only raise a total of $2,500 per election from a single source for his or her campaign committee as well as ballot measure committees, an officeholder account, political party fundraising and a leadership political action committee combined.

Public campaign financing in California is not new. Voters and elected officials have approved successful systems of public financing for campaigns in Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Richmond, Sacramento and San Francisco. Public campaign systems have also been adopted in other cities, including New York, Albuquerque, and Tucson, and in several states, including Arizona, Maine, Connecticut and New Jersey.

These public campaign financing systems have attracted new candidates to public office, allowed candidates to spend more time talking to constituents and less time fundraising, and provided an alternate source of funds unencumbered by special interest money. It is time for California to join this trend.

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Public Campaign Financing in California: A Model Law for 21st Century Reform was authored by CGS President Bob Stern, and is one in a series of CGS reports on public campaign financing programs in state and local jurisdictions, including Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Los Angeles, New York City, Albuquerque, Portland, Suffolk County New York, San Francisco and Tucson.

Generous funding from the Columbia Foundation made this report possible. Its judgments and conclusions are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the Foundation, the CGS Board of Directors or any other individual or agency.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen

  • Not necessarily against public financing, but the public can finance a new political party that is accountable to them instead of special interests without any change in the law. Given the consistent lack of public support for taxpayer financed elections, crowdfunding a new political party is a more feasible approach. After all, there’s a danger in believing that rules can ever be a substitute for leadership.

  • Ted Lawrence

    This soounds like LA’s plan which has been a disaster for anyone looking to challenge an incumbent. The problem is that the rich use expensive lawyers and find ways to use their money and the middle class and the poor can never figure out the rules to get organized. Roosevelt was always outspent, but he never had a problem. We need to organize, not try and change the rules.

  • RR, senile columnist

    Them rich folk always looking out fer themselves! Makes my blood boil. Are they smarter then the rest of us, or jus meaner.?