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The Money Grubbers

May 15, 1988

California legislators raised $27 million in campaign money during 1987--a year in which there was no general-election campaign. Why all that money with no election? That is how incumbents buy themselves perpetuity in office. Bankrolled by big-money interests, they amass so much cash in advance of a campaign that they scare off any serious election opposition.

This fact alone should persuade California voters that the only way to stop pervasive special interest influence on the Legislature, and nonstop fund-raising by the legislators, is to adopt a comprehensive campaign-reform law.

They will have that opportunity at the June 7 primary election by voting for Proposition 68,the reform initiative supported by a coalition that includes Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp. One provision would ban off-year fund-raising, thus freeing the lawmakers to do some of the public's critical business at least every other year.

Before the voters get to the ballot box, however, they will be assaulted by a strident campaign by opponents led by Gov. George Deukmejian and the legislative leaders of both political parties. The key point of the attack will be Proposition 68's modest public-financing provision, similar to the presidential campaign law, and the distortion that it will help both wealthy candidates and incumbents rather than control the power of their money.

The nonpartisan legislative analyst estimates that the public-financing provision would cost about $10 million per election. This is a reasonable outlay for an independent legislature that would not waste hundreds of millions of dollars annually in favors to the same special interests that have bankrolled lawmakers' campaigns.

Proposition 68 would help make legislative races truly competitive again. In 1984, incumbent Assembly members outspent challengers by a margin of 14 to 1, and every incumbent was reelected. Proposition 68's spending and contribution limits, public financing and incentives for raising funds in the candidates' own districts would make it more difficult for legislators in "safe" seats to amass huge campaign funds well before an election and thus drive off potential opponents.

Under the present system, when there is a truly contested legislative seat it becomes a battle of titans controlled from Sacramento--not by residents of the district itself. An example was the special election last year for the state Senate seat won by Democrat Cecil Green of Norwalk over Assemblyman Wayne Grisham (R-Norwalk). Of the $2.24 million raised by Green, $1.1 million was contributed by Senate President pro tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) from his own personal campaign fund. This is the way legislative leaders win and maintain their seats of power: by buying the loyalty of members who will vote to keep them in control. Such transfers would be banned under Proposition 68.

Through all the flak to come in this campaign, the voters should keep their eyes on the money--the $27 million that was raised by incumbent legislators when there was no election . Then they should vote for Proposition 68 to bring the obscene race for campaign funds under control and restore some competition to legislative contests.

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