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Activists Lament What They Say Is False Reform

Lawmakers say the measure will limit campaign contributions. Backers of stricter controls say voters were tricked.


SACRAMENTO — As the lawmakers who put it on the ballot hailed Proposition 34 as true reform, opponents of the campaign finance measure Wednesday lamented their own failure to convince voters that it was a trick to block stricter controls.

Although the measure's foes won the war for newspaper endorsements and outspent their rivals, Proposition 34 won handily at the polls, 60% to 40%.

Dejected reform groups attributed the result to an early move by legislators that kept them from making the "no" argument in the official ballot pamphlet that went to voters.

"It worked like a charm," said Trudy Schafer, program director for the League of Women Voters.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), the chief backer of the proposition, angrily insisted at a news conference that there was no trickery and that the proposition for the first time will provide California with contribution limits that can withstand a court challenge.

"It isn't perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than nothing and right now there is nothing," he said.

Written by lawyers for the Legislature, Proposition 34 was approved and placed on the ballot without an airing of opposition views in the final hours of this year's lawmaking session. Besides the limits on contributions, it provides for more frequent disclosure of political donations before an election.

Using their prerogative to choose the authors of the arguments for the ballot pamphlet, lawmakers selected fellow legislators rather than reform groups to write the "No" side. There was no mention that Proposition 34 would repeal portions of Proposition 208, a much tougher initiative approved by voters in 1996 but since tied up in the courts.

"We never overcame the built-in advantage the proponents had, based on the misleading official ballot materials," said League President Gail Dryden. "The voters assumed, wrongly, that Proposition 34 is campaign finance reform. No wonder they voted for it."

But Gov. Gray Davis and lawmakers, who had overwhelmingly supported the measure, argued that Proposition 34 is true reform for a state that has never had limits on campaign contributions.

"It is a step forward," Davis said. "There were no limits on campaign contributions, and now there are. . . . We will finally have campaign reform in this state."

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) said that, unlike previous reform proposals, including Proposition 208, the latest campaign finance measure would not likely be overturned by the courts.

Proposition 208 was struck down on the grounds that its contribution limits were too restrictive. But it got a new lease on life when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld similar limits in a Missouri case. A final decision on its constitutionality is pending.

"I'm tired of having campaign finance reform overturned. . . . It has been going on for 15 years," Hertzberg said. "This is not the perfect decision but it is constitutional. Unfortunately, it is the best we can do. There are no perfect answers."

The reformers predict that Proposition 34, with its high limits on contributions, will do little to change California's big-money politics.

It establishes a $3,000 limit on individual contributions to legislative races and a $5,000 ceiling on those to all statewide candidates except the governor, who is given a $20,000 limit. Those limits do not go into effect in statewide races until after the next election.

Proposition 208 imposed limits of $250 on individual contributions in legislative races and a $500 limit on donations to other statewide officeholders, including the governor.

"Quite frankly, the limits on what you can give are so high [under Proposition 34], I think candidates will continue to be able to raise and spend exorbitant sums," said Derek Cressman, of the California Public Interest Research Group.

Even so, he said, reformers found one aspect of the election results encouraging: They feel it showed that voters in California still strongly support campaign finance reform.

"People were meaning to send a signal that they wanted to put an end to big money in politics," he said. "Voters read the Voters Guide, which did not make clear that Proposition 34 was among the weakest proposals in the country, that it repealed stricter limits and that it was opposed by reform groups. They thought it was true reform."

He predicted that public interest groups would propose another reform measure of their own in the near future.

Schafer of the League of Women Voters was less optimistic. "We are at a disadvantage at this point," she said. "We're going to have to deal with a public that may take some time before it sees the need for change.

"We did what we could to get the word out about Proposition 34, but we just couldn't counter their strategy."

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