A special task force recommending changes in the city's election laws narrowly rejected on Friday a proposal that would allow local candidates to accept contributions of up to $1,000 from political action committees.
Under the city's 12-year-old campaign statute, contributions from the committees, known as PACs, are allowed in local referendums and "issue elections," but the groups are forbidden to donate to individual candidates. San Diego is one of the few cities in the state with such a restriction.
The vote was 7-6, with an odd coalition in opposition: campaign fund-raisers Ken Rietz and Bob Miller, Common Cause representative Mark Zerbe, attorney Greg Garrett, former U.S. Atty. Terry Knoepp, Chamber of Commerce representative John Leppert and Gail Harris of the League of Women Voters.
The PAC issue was one of a number of proposals being considered in recent months by the task force, which was formed shortly after Mayor Roger Hedgecock's indictment on charges stemming from illegal campaign contributions. Its recommendations are being sent to the City Council, which will make the final decision on proposed revisions of the campaign law. In earlier meetings, the panel has recommended increasing the local campaign-contribution limit from $250 to $500 and permitting now-outlawed corporate donations of up to $500.
A task force subcommittee's report on the issue said its intent in supporting PAC contributions was to "broaden the base of support for elections in San Diego," because the committees attract people making smaller donations and provide a vehicle for organized labor to donate to campaigns.
Any person can form a political action committee by filing a simple two-page statement of intent with the secretary of state. There is no limit on the number of PACs an individual can join, nor are there limits on the amount of money the committees can take in. "It doesn't take more than five minutes to get one together," Knoepp said.
"In practical terms," the report said, "many individuals only contribute through the vehicle of PACs, and without this method most individuals would not participate in or contribute to elections. This allowance would, then, in effect, broaden the base of support in local elections."
The subcommittee warned that allowing PAC and corporate donations would open a loophole that could allow individuals to give multiple campaign contributions in excess of the $500 limit by forming PACs to shield their donations. Its report said, however, "from a practical point of view, such proliferation is unlikely to occur. It is to be noted that many municipal campaign ordinances in California permit contributions by business entities and PACs without apparent problems."
"I have a difficult time making any finding that candidates need any more money in San Diego," said Bud Porter, a lobbyist. "But I honestly support the idea that bringing in PACs is the only way to get the smaller contributors involved."
"PACs are different from corporations," said Caryl Iseman, who has been active in fund raising for a number of local campaigns. "This isn't going to affect the larger donations--if you're giving a candidate $250, you want him to know about it, and you're not going to hide behind a PAC. PACs are made up of a lot of individuals who would be given a chance to see their smaller donations count in local elections."
But those arguing against allowing PAC contributions said such a move would open the door for widespread violations of the laws limiting campaign contributions. "PACs are formed to represent a narrow scope of interests and candidates," Common Cause's Zerbe said. "Individuals can get involved in local elections without getting PACs involved. This would just be opening up another loophole."
Rietz and Miller, both prominent campaign consultants and fund raisers, agreed that the measure would result in a proliferation of local PACs. "Anybody can go out and form 5 or 10 PACs--it's a really simple process," Miller said. "This would be impossible to control."
Leppert said, "While the chamber feels the opportunity to raise funds should be broadened, we can't support contributions to be made by PACs. That's going too far."
Garrett said he was "very sympathetic to the idea of broadening the base, but the negatives outweigh the positives in this case. If we do allow PACs to contribute, people could very easily avoid the contribution limit. It's so simple to form a PAC that we really wouldn't have a contribution limit anymore."