LONG BEACH — After more than a year's delay, a measure to limit campaign contributions in municipal elections may get new life by being tied to a proposal to restructure city government.
The proposed cap on contributions to candidates in city races had been mired in a City Council committee since December, 1984.
But in recent weeks, the proposal to limit contributions has been resurrected and linked to a plan that would give Long Beach a mayor elected citywide and a full-time council. Proponents of the restructuring say they hope the contribution caps will make it more popular with voters who have been skeptical of increasing the power of their elected officials.
Both the contribution limit and full-time council plan are to go before the council Tuesday when it sits as the Charter Amendment Committee. Many city officials predict the council will combine the proposals into a single measure on the June, 1986, ballot.
As drafted, the contribution ceilings limit individual donations to $750 per election for each City Council candidate and $1,500 for citywide races such as city attorney and auditor, and the proposed mayor's position. Candidates who violate the law would be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Also, violators could face further penalties. If a judge determined that a violation had a bearing on the outcome of an election, the candidate would be disqualified from taking office and declared ineligible for any city office for up to five years.
Combined Measure Predicted
The effort to limit contributions has sparked criticism from pro-business groups, which say it would give incumbents an unfair advantage in fund raising.
Supporters of the limits say they are pleased the proposal is making headway, but have expressed qualms about it being linked to the full-time council and at-large mayor plan.
"The contribution limit has been used as a bargaining chip" by council members, said Fred Kugler, director of the Long Beach Coalition for Responsive Government, the group pushing the campaign reforms. "It was a matter of some members of the council saying, 'I won't give you campaign contribution limitations until you give me mayor-at-large.' It was quid pro quo ."
Kugler and other supporters of contribution limits fear the proposal could be dragged to defeat if combined with the full-time council issue, which they contend will be unpopular with voters because it would hike the council's $12,600-a-year salary to as much as $39,000.
However, proponents of the full-time council plan believe that voters will be more likely to support it if it is tied to the campaign contribution limits, thus reducing the possibility that special-interest groups could gain influence with large donations.
Reform as a Sweetener
Council members "know campaign finance reform would sweeten the chances of the mayor-at-large," Kugler said. "We don't want them combined because we want the reforms to go through."
Councilman Warren Harwood, the council's principal supporter of the contribution limits, agreed that the issue probably would stand a better chance with the voters if it were not tied to the full-time council proposal.
"I believe it merits consideration on its own, but I'm also aware that in order to get it on the ballot, it may be necessary to combine it with something else," Harwood said. "Without that, I think the council as a whole is not sufficiently supportive of it."
Harwood first introduced the plan in early December, 1984. It was modeled after contribution limits introduced in Los Angeles and approved by voters in April, 1984. The limits in Los Angeles are $500 for council candidates and $1,000 for citywide races.
The Long Beach council members' initial response to the proposal was lukewarm--they voted to send it to their Finance Committee for more study. Sensing that a majority of the council was opposed to the contribution limits, Harwood said, he decided to keep the proposal locked in committee until the political winds changed.
'A Political Reality'
"I wanted the reforms, but I wasn't prepared to push it to certain defeat," he said. "It wasn't because of a lack of desire, it was because of a political reality."
After the full-time council issue surfaced, Harwood decided to renew his push for the campaign reform measure.
Although the proposal won the support of the Finance Committee early in December, the panel decided to raise the ceiling for council race contributions from $500 to $750. The limit for citywide candidates also was increased, from $1,000 to $1,500.
Kugler said he is troubled by that increase. If anything, Kugler said, Long Beach should have lower contribution limits than Los Angeles, where the council districts have five times as many people.
"It's just the principle of it," Kugler said. "They're going the wrong way on limitations."