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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Proposition 34 Offers Merely a Whiff of Reform

October 02, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — There's a definite odor reeking from the latest campaign finance "reform" proposal being offered Californians.

Not that it automatically should be rejected, necessarily. But you do have to get past that smell. And it isn't easy.

"Better than nothing" is about the best its advocates can say for Proposition 34. That and it's constitutional.

This is why it reeks:

* The Legislature placed Prop. 34 on the November ballot specifically to head off another, much tougher reform--Prop. 208--that voters approved overwhelmingly in 1996. Most Sacramento pols desperately fear that a federal judge soon will uphold Prop. 208. If he does, that will cut way back on their flow of political money.

* Prop. 34 was rushed through the Legislature without any public testimony. In fact, the greased bill's final version got only a 15-minute committee hearing.

* Most malodorous, the measure's bipartisan backers conspired to make sure the trusted "Official Voter Information Guide" that is mailed to households contains only sham opposition arguments. The real opponents--political reformers--believe Prop. 34 isn't strong enough. The opponents in the voters' guide--handpicked by the measure's sponsors--argue against any campaign contribution limits, a position repeatedly rejected by voters.

* Moreover, Prop. 34 creates a "soft money" scheme in state campaigns similar to the loophole-ridden system that afflicts federal elections.

*

By holding your nose, it's possible to tolerate some of this aroma. You can argue that:

* Repealing one measure (Prop. 208) by enacting another (Prop. 34) is a time-honored practice of democracy. Indeed, the Legislature should react more often to voter demands by negotiating compromise alternatives to citizen initiatives. (Preferably, however, the lawmakers would do this before the people vote.)

* Sure, the Legislature should have permitted public testimony, but let's put this in perspective. Outside the Capitol, citizen initiatives are written in secret all the time with no public input or expert guidance. That's why so many are flawed legally and wind up getting tossed out by courts.

But there's no acceptable excuse for Prop. 34's ballot argument flimflam.

True, when a ballot measure is produced by the Legislature, the law allows the legislative leaders to decide who argues each side in the voter guide. It smacks of a kangaroo court. Clearly, this law should be changed.

Legislators who vote against a measure get the first right of refusal to write the opposition arguments. In this case, there were two options for Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco)--the measure's author--and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks). They could have invited genuine reformers who opposed the measure on grounds it was too weak--reformers like Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-San Jose). Instead, they selected two conservatives--Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) and Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa)--whose no-limits-at-all argument is the least acceptable to voters.

"It was completely wired to quash the legitimate opposition," Hayden says. "This entire exercise has one motivation and that is to avoid Prop. 208. The wool's being pulled over the voters' eyes. And that's what I would have said in the ballot argument."

*

Some brief details:

Prop. 34 does impose campaign contribution limits that are more realistic than Prop. 208's. They're $3,000 for legislative races (compared to $250), $5,000 for statewide office except governor ($500) and $20,000 for governor ($500). The Legislature had to exempt the 2002 gubernatorial race before Gov. Gray Davis would sign the bill.

The measure also contains spending limits that are voluntary and virtually irrelevant because no candidate in a tight race would abide by them.

"I could live with the [contribution] limits if there weren't all the loopholes," says former Secretary of State Tony Miller, who's heading the opposition. "They make the limits almost meaningless."

The loopholes are in the soft money scheme. Political parties could contribute unlimited amounts to candidates. Donors could give the parties only $25,000 annually for candidate contributions. But they could give unlimited funds for "other purposes." So this would tempt party money laundering. And there would be no direct trace between a special interest donation and a candidate's receipt of political money.

"Is it perfect? No. Is it good? Yes," says Burton. "If you like the bill, the process doesn't bother ya. . . . The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

But this isn't pudding. It's more like Limburger.

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