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$1,000 Contribution Limit Is Now a Casualty of War Chests

May 11, 2003|Shirley L. Grindle | Shirley L. Grindle is a longtime community activist.

The Board of Supervisors just this month increased the county's campaign contribution limit from $1,000 to $1,400, a whopping 40% increase. Its feeble justification was a 40% cost-of-living increase since 1992, when 85% of those voting approved the $1,000 limit.

Unfortunately, the county's ordinance has a clause that permits the board to increase the limit in January of odd-numbered years, rounded off to the nearest hundred dollars. But until this month, the board had never exercised that option and the limit remained at $1,000 per candidate.

I opposed the 40% increase because it is unnecessary. The current board recaptured 10 years of increases in one fell swoop. Why? The most obvious argument is they are greedy and on the lookout for more campaign funds. Three of the board members are serving their final term, and at least two of these appear to be raising funds to run for higher office, having had a taste of the glory and power that go with an elected position. As incumbent supervisors they can amass large war chests, not only to run for state office, but also to scare off challengers with less money in the bank.

But supervisors cannot claim a hardship in raising sufficient funds under the long-standing limit. Supervisors Jim Silva and Tom Wilson, both in their final terms, have war chests of $129,000 and $77,000 respectively. Look for them to use the funds to run for statewide seats after leaving office. In fact, last week Wilson announced that he is running for the 73rd Assembly District seat -- fund-raising letters will soon follow.

Supervisor Bill Campbell managed to raise $297,000 for his recent election, and Supervisor Chris Norby set an all-time high of $498,000, mostly on the strength of contributions from the public in the $100-to-$500 range. Board members cannot claim that they can't raise sufficient funds, because the facts speak otherwise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard several campaign-related cases in the last five years and determined that the cost of living has very little to do with the cost of campaigns. How right the justices are! Campaigning has been reduced to a spending contest between opponents operating under the belief that the one who spends the most money wins.

Ultimately, big money alienates candidates from the electorate. Candidates use excessive campaign funds to pay for expensive mailings, to buy numerous slate mailers, and to buy favor with the party hierarchy. The need to actually go into the community no longer exists. Ask yourself when a candidate last knocked on the door to ask for your vote.

If anything, there is probably justification for lowering the $1,000 limit. Before Orange County instituted contribution limits, the development industry (developers, builders, architects, civil engineers and geologists) accounted for 85% to 90% of campaign funds raised for supervisor campaigns. One lobbyist even loaned a supervisor $50,000 for his campaign! Many large development firms routinely contributed $5,000 to $10,000 to incumbent supervisors. When the $1,000 limit went into effect, the development industry was no longer under the gun to attend numerous fund-raisers and write check after check.

As a result, the development industry now supplies 40% to 45% of all funds raised. The $1,000 contribution limit forced candidates to broaden their base of support by seeking contributions from the public and from non-development businesses.

The majority of $1,000 contributions, however, does not come from the public because individuals typically give in the $100-to-$500 range. The larger contributions come primarily from the developers, their lobbyists and companies seeking county government contracts. You can bet that these contributors soon will receive letters from each supervisor informing them that they now have the privilege of contributing another $400 to each of their campaigns. These checks guarantee continued access and special treatment for their projects and contract pursuits.

Just being a voter isn't good enough to warrant fair treatment anymore.

I hope that those who receive these blatant extortion letters will ignore them to show their disapproval of this huge 40% increase in the contribution limit.

The supervisors have demonstrated that their greed for funds far outweighs any concern about adding to the cost of doing business in Orange County.

The only recourse available to prevent the limit from being further increased by the politicians is to run another initiative to remove the offensive cost-of-living escalator clause from the current ordinance.

The supervisors could put the issue on the ballot (thus avoiding the need to get more than 100,000 voter signatures), but it is a foregone certainty that they will not because they know that voter sentiment is probably not with them.

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