Dan Walters

Public campaign financing should require voter approval in California

Gov. Pete Wilson, state Sen. Quentin Kopp, and UC Regent Ward Connerly turn in more than 1 million signatures in 1996 to qualify an initiative. Kopp, who is also a retired judge as well as a retired legislator, is suing to overturn a law passed in 2016 that purports to legalize public financing of campaigns.
Gov. Pete Wilson, state Sen. Quentin Kopp, and UC Regent Ward Connerly turn in more than 1 million signatures in 1996 to qualify an initiative. Kopp, who is also a retired judge as well as a retired legislator, is suing to overturn a law passed in 2016 that purports to legalize public financing of campaigns. Sacramento Bee file

Public financing of campaigns is the long-sought holy grail for Common Cause and other political reform advocates.

If candidates receive public funds for their campaigns, reformers theorize, they will be less beholden to special interest contributors, more independent after winning office and thus more responsive to the needs and wishes of their constituents.

It’s an unproven – and probably unprovable – theory. Like other supposed reforms, public campaign financing collides with an overriding reality that the decisions officeholders make have immense consequences and those affected by them naturally seek to influence those decisions.

Campaign contributions are one way to affect policy decisions, and if they are shunted aside, affected interests will find other ways, some of them even less seemly.

One should recall that the much-criticized “independent expenditures” that confuse voters and shield candidates from accountability exploded after limits were placed on direct contributions to candidates for the Legislature and statewide offices.

Theory aside, 28 years ago California voters passed Proposition 73, which imposed tight limits on campaign contributions but also prohibited public campaign financing for candidates for state and most local offices.

The campaign contribution limits were later voided by federal courts, but the ban on public financing remained intact and has been invoked when local governments lacking charters have attempted to introduce it.

Six charter cities, which are exempt from Proposition 73’s ban, have limited forms of public financing, and reformers yearn to extend it to non-charter governments.

Enter Senate Bill 1107, which purports to amend California’s Political Reform Act, overturn Proposition 73, and allow non-charter local governments and the state itself to implement public campaign finance if they wish.

California’s Political Reform Act, backed by Jerry Brown as he ran for governor in 1974, can be amended by the Legislature to further its purposes. However, the Legislature’s own lawyer concluded that since voters enacted the flat ban on public finance, they would have to repeal it.

In a letter, the legislative counsel’s office said the public financing provisions in SB 1107 “would require voter approval in order to become effective.”

Legislative leaders, with the support of Fair Political Practices Commission Chairwoman Jodi Remke, ignored that advice. SB 1107 was passed last year and signed by Brown, 42 years after he sponsored the original Political Reform Act.

The issue – whether the Legislature can overturn a voter-enacted public financing ban – is headed to the courts.

Last month, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and judge who was one of Proposition 73’s original sponsors, filed suit to invalidate the new law.

There are really three intertwined issues.

One is whether public financing is the cure for systemic political corruption its advocates fervently believe it to be. It’s probably nothing more than feel-good symbolism.

The second is whether all local governments should be allowed to experiment with it, rather than just those with charters. They probably should have that choice, as naive and misguided as it may be.

The third and most important is whether the Legislature should be able to overturn something the voters enacted. That arrogance, if allowed to occur, would undermine the initiative system.

If Common Cause et al. want to legalize public financing of campaigns, they should ask voters for permission.

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