SACRAMENTO — More than a year after California voters approved Proposition 73, one thing is certain: no one is sure how the state's new campaign finance law is going to work.
The Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's campaign oversight agency, is still in the process of interpreting the initiative and issuing regulations that tell candidates and campaign contributors how to comply with the law.
At the same time, a total of 10 lawsuits have been filed in courts around the state challenging key provisions of the initiative and some of the regulations already adopted by the commission.
The resulting confusion has left candidates, political fund-raisers and potential donors uncertain as to how to operate within the law as they prepare for the 1990 elections.
"Everybody's worrying," said one adviser to a Democratic candidate who asked not to be identified. "The state of it is so unsettled it's very painful. Even if you want to comply with the spirit of the law it's hard to know."
When the dust finally settles, some critics of Proposition 73 predict, the initiative will do far less to reform the political system than voters expected when they approved the measure.
In any case, next year's elections will be a period of experimentation in which candidates will discover how the law works and the public will see whether it really reduces the cost of campaigns.
"The jury is clearly still out," acknowledged Assembly Republican Leader Ross Johnson of La Habra, the primary author of Proposition 73. "It's really not been put to the test yet. Part of that is just the general confusion of all these court actions and conflicting decisions by the Fair Political Practices Commission. It's been sort of left in limbo."
Billed as a "campaign reform" measure, Proposition 73 was sponsored by Johnson, Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) and Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier). (Montoya pleaded not guilty last week to 10 counts of extortion, racketeering and money laundering stemming from the FBI's undercover investigation of political corruption in the state Capitol.)
The initiative was designed to limit the size of campaign contributions, ban the transfer of campaign funds between candidates and prohibit the use of campaign funds collected before Jan. 1. It also contains provisions banning mass mailings of more than 200 pieces sent at taxpayers' expense, prohibiting candidates from spending money they raised for one race on a campaign for another office, and limiting to $1,000 the size of some gifts and honorariums elected officials can receive.
So far, however, the only major provisions that have not been modified by regulations or challenged in court are the ban on transfers of campaign funds from one candidate to another and the campaign contribution limits of $1,000 from individuals, $2,500 from small political committees and $5,000 from broad-based political committees per fiscal year.
John Larson, chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said the five-member panel has struggled to find rational ways to implement the initiative but sometimes has been frustrated by ambiguous language in the measure.
"It was not well written," he said. "Many of these questions could have been worked out (when the initiative was drafted)."
Furthermore, members of the commission have been disappointed by court actions overruling some of the agency's regulations. Larson said he is concerned that some legal challenges to the initiative may not be resolved before the 1990 elections.
"It seems like every time we think we're on the path to something, there's another court decision that throws a monkey wrench in things and we have to re-evaluate," Larson said. "It would be unfortunate if it took so long that the 1990 election had to be carried out under a court order that had not had time for appeal."
Earlier this year, the Fair Political Practices Commission joined Democratic leaders and Assemblyman Johnson in asking the California Supreme Court to consolidate the various lawsuits and settle once and for all what the measure means. But the high court declined to take the case, leaving the suits to wend their way through state and federal courts.
The most significant court decision so far was a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton overruling the commission's regulations in three areas.
Judge Makes Ruling
In the case brought by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and labor unions, Karlton ruled that candidates who had raised money before Jan. 1 could spend all the money in future campaigns as long as they did so in keeping with the contribution limits of Proposition 73. This decision was welcomed by politicians such as Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, a Democratic candidate for governor who had collected $1.5 million before 1989 and now would be able to spend much of it in his upcoming race.