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Prop. 73 Backers Try to Revive Law : Politics: State Supreme Court might fix wording, reinstate campaign-finance law.

March 11, 1994|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Backers of Proposition 73, a successful 1988 state ballot measure that limited campaign contributions in state and local elections but was later struck down by federal courts, have launched an effort to revive the law.

Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Placentia) and state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp, an independent from San Francisco, are planning to file legal papers Monday asking the California Supreme Court to correct any unconstitutional provisions and reinstitute the measure.

"There's precedent for the court going in and modifying ballot measures to clear up constitutional questions and fulfill the wishes of the voters," Johnson said Thursday. "We intend to ask them to do just that."

The bulk of Proposition 73 was declared unconstitutional in a February, 1992, final ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled that the measure discriminated by favoring incumbents because its contribution limits--$1,000 for individuals and businesses and $5,000 for political action committees--were based on a fiscal year instead of an election cycle.

Since challengers usually don't decide to run until a few months before an election, the appeals court declared, incumbents would have an advantage under Proposition 73 to build up large campaign war chests by tapping contributors several times in the years before an election. They suggested that the law instead should have been based on an election cycle, meaning a donor could give up to the limit only one time before election day.

Johnson still disagrees with the ruling, but said he and Kopp believe the state Supreme Court can easily fix any flaws in the law--and that the justices have suggested they would be willing to do it.

Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas said in a December ruling on a related case that the constitutional questions underlying the rejection of Proposition 73 are matters of state law. In a footnote to the written opinion, Lucas said "one can only wonder" why backers of Proposition 73 had not asked the state Supreme Court to step in. Problems with the measure, Lucas said, "are arguably susceptible to a construction by the state's highest court that repairs any constitutional infirmity."

In other words, the chief justice was suggesting that the state Supreme Court might be able to fix it.

"You couldn't have a more direct invitation," Johnson said. "Clearly they have the power to recast the language of the measure to remove any problems and effectuate the intent of the voters."

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Some participants in the fight for campaign-finance reform welcomed news of the effort by Johnson and Kopp, who co-authored Proposition 73.

"This is just my own opinion, but at this point I think any limitation would be better than what we have now," said Bob Stern, co-director of the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a private research organization. "It has its flaws, but at the same time it will start to clean up the process and reduce the perception that government is corrupt."

But others expressed concern. Ruth Holton, executive director of California Common Cause, a political watchdog group, said she is concerned about reviving Proposition 73 because "contribution limits themselves don't answer the whole problem."

"You'll have elected officials simply spending more time raising money," Holton said. "You need the counterbalance of spending limits and public financing."

Proposition 73 was approved by 58% of the voters in the June, 1988, election, beating out a rival campaign-finance measure, Proposition 68, which got 53% of the vote. The election came amid growing concerns that the huge of amounts of campaign cash contributed to lawmakers each year by special interest groups was having a corrupting influence on the Legislature.

Although voters approved both, the measures have mostly been mired in the courts ever since.

Proposition 68, which included spending limits and public financing of races, was almost immediately thrown out by the courts because its rival received more votes--and included a ban on public financing. Proposition 73, meanwhile, was in effect for the 1990 elections, and dramatically reduced the amount of campaign cash contributed. It dropped from $79.4 million in 1988 to $52 million in 1990.

Aside from contribution limits, the measure included a ban on transfers of campaign cash between candidates, a tactic commonly used by legislative leaders to maintain their hold on power. Its campaign-finance restrictions applied to candidates for local and state office.

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When the measure was ruled unconstitutional in 1992, backers of the rival Proposition 68 responded by asking the state Supreme Court to reinstitute their campaign-finance proposal, reasoning that it had gotten a majority vote and would fill the void.

Their pleas were rejected in the December opinion written by Lucas. But the same ruling yielded the revelation that the state Supreme Court justices might be willing to tinker with Proposition 73 to make it pass constitutional muster.

Holton questioned whether the law would mostly benefit Republicans, who have a bigger pool of contributors in the $1,000 range. She said challengers and candidates in minority communities would be hurt for similar reasons. Although the measure caused campaign contributions to drop, Holton said, the funding gap between incumbents and challengers jumped from 6 to 1 in 1988 to 8 to 1 in 1990 under Proposition 73.

Stern agreed that Democrats "will probably have conniption fits over this," but said that similar contribution limits have been enacted by Democratic-dominated Legislatures in other states. California Democrats, he said, "fear change because they've won with this system for years."

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