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Buying back government

December 07, 2005

AS IF THE RESULTS OF LAST month's special election weren't convincing enough, there is new evidence that the public is fed up with Sacramento. The Public Policy Institute of California surveyed 2,002 voters in the 12 days after Nov. 8 and, in various ways on various issues, it's clear: They're not happy.

More than three-quarters of them, or 76%, don't like the way the governor and Legislature are working together. Three-fifths thought the special election was a bad idea. More than two-thirds, or 68%, think California is headed in the wrong direction. Barely one in five, or 17%, say they can trust public officials to do what's right most of the time. It was, as the poll's director said, "a vote of no confidence for state government." Public financing of elections would go a long way toward restoring that confidence.

Regardless of what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature (disapproval ratings of 56% and 66%, respectively) may accomplish in the coming year, the state's basic political system remains broken and in serious need of repair. And the biggest evil is the dominance of big money in California elections. More than $250 million was spent on ballot measures this year. Essentially, it was provided by the Democrats' supporters in organized labor and, on the Republican side, by business interests.

It's a system that invites corruption and compromise of political principle. Almost four-fifths of voters in the survey, or 78%, think state government is controlled by a few big interests. One way to take control from these interests is to provide public financing of elections, from the Legislature through the statewide offices, up to and including governor. Arizona and Maine have done this with considerable success. Last week, the Connecticut Legislature passed a "clean money" bill that the governor has pledged to sign.

The clean-money law being proposed by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) would provide up to $10 million for a qualifying candidate for governor, while Assembly candidates would get $150,000 and Senate contestants $300,000. Candidates could choose to finance their campaigns the traditional way, but the clean-money candidates would get enough to remain competitive.

Many details, such as how the state would pay for all this, still need to be worked out in the course of the legislative process. But other states have found innovative ways to make the system work. Arizona, for example, finances its program with surcharges on court proceedings. The more immediate problem may be getting members of the Legislature to put such a measure on the ballot because it would inevitably make it easier for outsiders and challengers to defeat them. It probably would take a ballot initiative with broad bipartisan support.

Opponents would rail about the cost. Yet smart voters would realize that the costs of a dysfunctional state government are far greater. They would also realize that any money spent to buy back their government from the free-spending interests was a bargain.

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