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Orange County

Campaign Limits May Face Repeal

A bid to scrap local TIN CUP rules could be on the November ballot. Supervisor Norby wants to let looser state laws govern donations.

March 14, 2004|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Orange County voters may be asked in November to repeal a groundbreaking political-reform law that for 25 years has restricted campaign donations to local candidates.

In the absence of the Orange County law, donations would be regulated by more generous state limits that allow, for instance, married couples to contribute 10 times as much.

Supervisor Chris Norby floated the idea of a repeal last week as the Board of Supervisors discussed an August deadline to put matters on the November ballot.

He suggested that recent court decisions have undercut the effectiveness of the county law, which he said restricts speech and aids well-heeled candidates and incumbents who need less outside financial help.

"I want to eliminate the double-standard," Norby said in an interview about county and state campaign finance laws.

"What sense does it make to have all of these conflicting regulations? It's very unfair."

Shirley Grindle, a longtime government watchdog who wrote the law in 1978, predicted that voters would reject Norby's idea.

Voters traditionally support limiting the influence of money in politics, she said.

"Increasing the limit would just put a big burden on local businesses because the average person isn't going to be able to give the kind of money they're talking about," she said. "You notice it isn't the donors calling for this change, it's the candidates."

David Kidd, a Laguna Beach consultant who backed the original law, said he would look forward to debating its repeal.

"I've been searching for the definitive countywide issue that would truly ignite voter interest and awareness in good government," he said.

"The board would serve it up on a silver platter."

Under Norby's idea -- which he acknowledged hasn't been committed to paper -- the allowable contribution of $1,400 to each county candidate for every four-year election cycle would be scrapped, along with restrictions on slate mailers for four or more candidates or issues, and additional candidate reporting requirements.

The $1,400 limit applies to individuals and to married couples whose money is co-mingled.

The county's elected officials include supervisors, sheriff, district attorney, treasurer/tax collector, clerk/recorder and public guardian/public administrator.

In the absence of the county ordinance, state limits approved by voters in 2000 would apply. For legislative candidates, who represent districts somewhat smaller than supervisorial districts, donors are limited to $3,400 to each candidate for the primary and the same amount for the general election.

Husbands and wives may give individually, which means a couple could give a maximum of $6,800 for each election.

The move might be welcomed by some business donors who feel stymied by current limits, said lobbyist Christine D. Iger of Newport Beach, past chairwoman of the Orange County Business Council.

"It's handy to say, 'We're limited' and not have to give more, but there are really great candidates that businesses are passionate about who could benefit from more money," she said.

"In my experience, it's rare to hear someone say they're happy to be limited to write a check for someone they really care about."

Supervisor Bill Campbell said he backed Norby's idea in concept because he would like county restrictions to be consistent with the state's.

But before supporting such a ballot measure, he said, he would do some polling to determine if his constituents wanted a change.

"Orange County got ahead of the state [in 1978] and now the state has caught up," Campbell said.

Repealing Orange County's law -- known as TIN CUP for the election reform motto "Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics" -- would start a flood of money to candidates.

The county has been a leader in constraining campaign cash. California passed its first major statewide political reform in 1974, addressing such issues as conflicts of interest and campaign financing. Orange County followed four years later with TIN CUP.

By then, 43 county officials had been charged over the previous decade with crimes ranging from laundering contributions to using county resources for political work -- prompting California Journal magazine to dub the county "the dirty tricks capital of California."

A companion measure placed on the 1992 ballot was approved by 85% of voters. However, a second revision failed in 2002.

That measure would have frozen the then-$1,000 contribution limit and allowed married couples to give individually. Supervisors subsequently raised the limit to $1,400.

Regardless of voter approval, the courts have intervened over the years, determining which limits were reasonable.

In 1992, a federal court struck down attempts to restrict campaign spending, ruling that while contributions could be capped, limiting a candidate's expenditures violated the 1st Amendment.

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