LONG BEACH — City Council members are about to tackle a subject most of them have not greeted enthusiastically in the past: placing a cap on how much they can receive and spend during elections.
This time the proposal includes spending public money. Proponents say it amounts to about $175,000 per year, or less than 45 cents per resident annually.
The council's three-member Economic Development and Finance Committee voted 2 to 1 Tuesday to endorse placing the measure on the November ballot.
But it is questionable whether a majority of the nine-member council will agree to take the idea to the voters. The council traditionally has either rejected campaign finance reform proposals or let them founder.
Councilman Tom Clark, who chaired the council committee and supports the reform, said the current mayoral race that has broken spending records in Long Beach may be the catalyst for change.
Until now, the highest amount spent on any local race was about $125,000, which Councilwoman Jan Hall spent to win her reelection bid two years ago. For the mayoral race so far, Hall has reported spending $264,625 and Ernie Kell has reported $332,454.
"There is a concern because of the large amount of money raised . . . people feel that the individuals running for office are under more of an obligation (to the contributors,)" Clark said.
Members of Common Cause, Long Beach Area Citizens Involved and the League of Women Voters lauded the committee's action.
"It's a very positive step toward reforming our electoral system, which is dominated by big dollars," said Michael Ferrall, Long Beach Common Cause chapter director.
The plan going before the council next month calls for mayoral candidates to limit their contributions to $1,500 per individual or political committee. Spending would be limited to $1 per registered voter. (There are 172,203 registered voters in Long Beach.) So if a candidate spends a maximum of $172,203 in the primary, half of that can come from public funding. If there is a runoff, the candidate can start a new campaign war chest, but his or her spending ceiling is lowered by one-half, with half of that new figure coming from public funding.
For council candidates, the plan would limit contributions to $750 per individual or political committee; spending would again be limited to $1 per person in the district. (The districts average about 42,000 people each.) So a candidate could spend a maximum of $42,000 and get half of that from matching public funds. In the case of a runoff, the candidate could spend up to 50 cents per person in the district--or an average of $21,000 per race for a runoff. Half of the $21,000 in the runoff could come from public money.
Under the plan, candidates also would have to limit their own contributions toward their campaigns to 3% of their expenditure limit.
To receive matching public funds--$1 for each $1 received--mayoral candidates would have to receive a minimum of 200 contributions of $10 and council candidates would need 50 contributions of $10. Only contributions from residents would go toward meeting the eligibility requirement.
The plan would be voluntary, and only those who sign a written consent to abide by the limitations would be eligible for the matching funds.
"The only way you can actually place a limit on the amount of money spent on a campaign" is by providing matching funds, Clark said. "You can set a limit on the amount of contributions but not on spending unless you have the public financing element."
Vice Mayor Warren Harwood, a member of the committee, opposed the plan because he said it leaves incumbents open to last-minute mudslinging by groups or individuals who oppose the incumbent but who are not affiliated with an opponent. Harwood cited the airline industry and its fight with the city over airport expansion as an example. If airlines decide to oppose an incumbent because he or she has fought airport expansion, but they do so on their own and at the last minute of a race, the incumbent has no chance to fight back, Harwood said.
"If it's late enough in the campaign, you are stuck with your two mailers," and having spent the maximum allowed, "you can't respond," Harwood said. "That's pretty frightening." Clark said such a scenario remains a "fact of life" in elections, but it is an unlikely one, since most groups join with a candidate and have his or her approval before sending out campaign material.
Luanne Pryor, who earlier this month was edged out of the mayoral race by Kell and Hall, said her opponents' large war chests forced her out of the competition. Pryor, who reported spending $44,572 in the race, told the committee that more than 23% of the voters picked her, "and they knew that I was for campaign finance reform."
"If this had been in effect, Luanne Pryor would have had enough money to put out another mailer . . . and she would have gotten in the runoff, said Fred Kugler, a LBACI spokesman and Pryor supporter.