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Gold Rush

December 01, 1985

California's flimsy campaign-financing laws have given the state the best legislature that money can buy. The Senate and Assembly campaigns are the most expensive of their kind in the country, with the price up 3,000% since 1958--and still rising.

The $44.8 million that went into slate mailers and other trappings of campaigns for 100 seats in Sacramento last year had to come from someplace. And the someplaces are starting to grumble.

Lobbyists say that they are sick of being "shaken down" to support the political habits of senators and assemblymen. Business people and political-action committees who between them put up more than half of all campaign funds complain that the fund-raising never stops, even when the ballots have barely been counted or when the election is more than a year away. Candidates, especially incumbents, spend one-half to three-quarters of their time chasing around with their hands out to finance computerized campaigns that they probably would win anyway.

Why perpetuate what a recent report calls California's new gold rush when nobody seems to enjoy the incessant giving and taking? Most likely it is because, as the report by the California Commission on Campaign Financing says, legislators serve two masters--the taxpayers who vote for them and the big contributors who pay for persuading the taxpayers how to vote. To know how unevenly the masters are served, ask any legislator which call he takes first--the one from the voter, or the one from the backer with the checkbook.

There are two difficulties in trying to clean up a situation that gives at least an appearance of growing corruption, certainly growing cynicism,in Sacramento.

One is that, for all their complaining, contributors like getting through first on the telephone. Legislators like the security of not having to risk being outspent by an opponent.

The other is that case law and the Constitution make it tough to clamp down on political spending and contributing without also clamping down on someone's First Amendment rights.

After 18 months of meticulous study of both the law and the horror stories contained in campaign reports, the commission of Republicans and Democrats, business people and labor officials, lawyers, academics and civic leaders thinks that it has found a way. We have looked over its plan carefully, and we also think that it has found a way.

We have resisted limits on campaign financing in the past, preferring to let restraint come from the 1974 law requiring full disclosure to voters of the sources of contributions.

But the commission report persuasively argues that the most important disclosure under the 1974 law is that the campaign-financing picture is worse than ever.

The commission proposal would put strict limits on large contributions to candidates for the California Senate and Assembly. No other public offices would be affected under its model law, but obviously if the concept worked it could be extended.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that no limit can be put on such spending, the commission has worked out an intricate set of incentives to make candidates voluntarily hold spending to $225,000 in the general election for the Assembly and $325,000 for the Senate.

Candidates with opponents who declined to honor spending ceilings could draw on a fund financed by tax checkoffs to help them keep up with the opponents. No money could be transferred from one politician's fat campaign account to another's thin account. Fund-raising would be limited to election years.

Campaign-financing proposals come and go, most of them flawed by unconstitutional limitations or by provisions favoring one political party over another.

The commission plan is balanced. It reflects hard bargaining in which both Republicans and Democrats have given up pet proposals in order to provide a united front on a comprehensive package that in the long run would benefit candidates and voters of all persuasions.

We also are moved by a kind of now-or-never flavor to the report: "If unchecked, current campaign-finance practices may seriously damage political institutions in this state." That there is even the slightest danger of that happening is the best argument in favor of a major effort to put its recommendations into law.

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