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California and the West

Key Legislator Seeks Bipartisan Campaign Reform Bill

Capitol: State Sen. Burton says curbs on donations are needed but not tax subsidies. Activists applaud idea but express skepticism about any real change.


SACRAMENTO — Vowing to put some restraints on California's no-limit campaign finance practices, state Senate Leader John Burton announced Thursday that legislators will try to write a bipartisan bill that clamps limits on political contributions but avoids taxpayer subsidies of election campaigns.

The San Francisco Democrat announced the plan in the aftermath of Republican John McCain's reformist presidential campaign and the defeat Tuesday of Proposition 25, an initiative that would have limited political donations and provided public funds for certain candidates.

At a news conference, Burton agreed that legislative attempts to reform the way campaigns are funded have been unsuccessful for years, but insisted that this one will be different: "I'm going to be driving the engine."

The announcement received a mixed response from reformers.

"I'm delighted that Burton is responding. We obviously got their attention," said Tony Miller, a co-sponsor of Proposition 25. But he cautioned that it is "very difficult for incumbents who have succeeded under the existing system to propose to change the system."

Craig Holman, project director at the Center for Governmental Studies, a private think tank, dismissed the plan as "just rhetoric. Campaign finance reform will not be achieved through the California Legislature. There's just too much money poured into the system."

Burton, the powerful president pro tem of the Senate and a premier campaign fund-raiser, said a bipartisan conference committee of the Legislature's six top leaders will be activated to draft a reform bill that could win two-thirds approval of each house and the signature of Gov. Gray Davis.

He indicated that the plan also may have to be submitted to voters. The intent, he said, is to "come up with a proposal that is workable and that would be approved by the people."

Burton said Assembly Speaker-elect Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) will be the chief negotiator in the lower house. Hertzberg poured $350,000 into the anti-Proposition 25 campaign. An aide said the assemblyman had supported earlier campaign reform ballot initiatives.

Burton conceded that the bill was a result of the Tuesday elections, in which McCain's appeals for overhaul of the way campaigns are financed appeared to strike a chord with many California voters.

Burton did not detail how the anticipated bill would reform the process, but said it would include contribution caps. He suggested that the limits would be higher for candidates who voluntarily agreed to restrict campaign spending.

But he indicated that the plan probably would not include use of taxpayer funds to subsidize candidates who agreed to limit their spending, a controversial provision of Proposition 25, which opponents hammered hard. Some analysts said the public financing provision was the measure's fatal flaw.

Burton noted that most Republicans oppose public financing.

Democrat Davis, who fought Proposition 25, said he opposed the measure because it included taxpayer subsidies to buy broadcast credits for some office seekers. Davis also complained that it put no restraints on self-financed millionaire candidates, two of whom he opposed in his 1998 primary election.

For nearly two decades, legislative efforts to reform campaign financing have failed, largely because they included use of public funds.

At least two bills, each authored by then-Sen. Bill Lockyer, cleared the Democratic-controlled Legislature but were vetoed by Republican Govs. George Deukmejian in 1984 and Pete Wilson in 1994. Another Lockyer reform bill cleared the Senate in 1996 but failed in the Assembly.

Miller, who also supported Proposition 208, a 1996 campaign contribution initiative that was approved by voters but is tied up in court, said that steering clear of public subsidies would make the Burton program more acceptable.

The limits in Proposition 208 were declared unconstitutional by a federal court in Sacramento. But a recent favorable U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Missouri case has given Miller and other reformers new optimism that their measure will be upheld at a trial scheduled to begin July 11.

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