LONG BEACH — After three years of study, a City Council committee on Tuesday will again debate local campaign contribution and spending limits.
But it looks like the committee will do what the council has done in the past: recommend more study.
To supporters, that's old news.
"We have studied this already. We don't really need to reinvent the wheel," said Michael Ferrall, Long Beach Common Cause chapter director. "It's time for us to act. And the time to study is over."
Common Cause and other groups in a coalition calling for campaign finance reform point to next spring's mayoral race as proof that reform is needed. Mayor Ernie Kell and Councilwoman Jan Hall, both vying to become the city's first full-time mayor, each have already raised more money than any candidate has ever spent on a local race.
'Best Money Can Buy'
"The way the mayoral election is now shaping up, we're going to get the best mayor money can buy," said Fred Kugler, a member of the Long Beach Coalition for Responsive Government. "We're not going to have an election. We're going to have an auction."
Finance Committee Chairman Tom Clark and several other council members agree that a perception exists that "special interests buy favors" with their fat donations. But they don't agree on how to fix the problem.
The Finance Committee will consider options to:
Limit contributions in council and mayoral races, place a cap on how much a candidate can spend and subsidize the candidates through public financing.
Adopt an ordinance similar to one in Los Angeles that restricts the amount council candidates can raise through their campaign fund, but allows council members to raise unlimited amounts through political action committees. This option appears dead, with even the member who first offered it, Warren Harwood, now saying it is unworkable because it is riddled with too many loopholes.
Recommend the council form a task force to further study the issue.
Committee Chairman Tom Clark and Councilman Clarence Smith have said they favor placing the first proposal on the ballot. Clark, however, said last week that he does not believe the full council is ready to agree to it. Therefore, Clark said, he expects his committee to recommend that the council appoint a task force to study the issue.
A Do-Nothing Option
"The other option is to do nothing," Clark said.
Last year, when the finance committee sent campaign finance reform to the council, there was little discussion, no vote and the issue went back to the committee.
"One could surmise it hasn't been greeted with a great deal of warmth," Clark said.
Clark's committee is quite adept at pondering campaign finance reform. It has been studying the issue since 1984.
"We are at a point where the committee has to do something," said Clark, who added that some type of limits are "long overdue."
The coalition of groups spearheading reform has proposed that district council campaigns not accept more than $500 from an individual and $1,000 from a group, with a maximum of $20,000 from all groups. Contributions in the mayor's race would be limited to $1,000 for an individual and $2,500 from groups, with a maximum of $80,000 from all groups, Ferrall said.
The proposal would place a spending cap of $200,000 on a mayoral candidate and $50,000 for a council candidate. It also calls for inducing candidates to agree to the limits by offering city matching funds to those who limit spending. A council candidate could receive up to $25,000 in matching funds and a mayoral candidate could receive up to $100,000 after the primary for the runoff, Kugler said.
The public financing would cost taxpayers about $165,000 a year, or less than 45 cents a person--"about the cost of a can of Pepsi," Ferrall said.
The program would be voluntary because court rulings have said a government cannot set campaign spending limits. "Political pressure forces them to accept this plan," Ferrall said. "Because otherwise people would wonder why is this candidate trying to buy the election."
Harwood said he opposes dipping into taxpayer money to pay for campaigns when that money could otherwise be used for police or parks. Although he says he supports campaign finance reform, Harwood said the committee has not yet come up with a viable plan. Rather than appoint a task force, Harwood said he would prefer the committee continue to study the issue and hold public hearings.
Harwood, who spent about $25,000 in his past election, also said he has problems with some of the limits, which he said "are not workable." In some districts, such as District 3 in the affluent eastside section of the city, a $50,000 cap may not be realistic, Harwood said.
But those who argue for campaign finance reform say races such as the last one in District 3 are a good example of why changes are needed. Hall, who represents that district, holds the current campaign spending record of $125,000 during her reelection bid last year.