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A little proposition with big potential

Prop. 15, on the June 8 ballot, would permit public financing of elections for secretary of state — and it could be a first step toward reducing the influence of special interests.

April 21, 2010|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

If your dream — most likely fantasy — is to install public financing of California state political races, then Proposition 15 is worth voting for. Barely.

It would create public financing — sort of — for only one office, the low-profile secretary of state. But it could pave the way for a much broader system later.

I'm one of those who shares the pipe dream but doubts it ever will become a reality.

I've always felt that if the public doesn't buy the politicians, the special interests will. And do.

Labor unions — public and private — bankroll Democrats and bully their leaders in the Legislature. Business lobbies — insurance, pharmaceutical, utility, oil — badger Republicans into easy submission. Casino tribes browbeat both parties.

As Arnold Schwarzenegger so accurately described the state Capitol when he ran for governor in the 2003 Gray Davis recall: "Money goes in, favors come out, and the people lose."

But neither governors nor voters can repeal human nature. Elected officials will continue to be overly influenced by the interests that bought their tickets to office.

And the office-holders, especially because of term limits, will waste an inordinate amount of the public's time hitting up interests for money to finance their next election campaigns.

Of course, some politicians are extraordinarily principled. Or call it naive.

"I believe strongly that each statewide elected official and legislator ought to be thinking of only what's in the best interest of the people who elected them," says Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), the author of Prop. 15.

"Our present system is very compromising and corrupting."

But to achieve public financing, Hancock and other reformers — or "do-gooders," as they're derided — must buck some cabals.

One is the officeholder club. Members got elected by learning the traditional system of pay-to-play and are very reluctant to abandon it. But the Legislature did pass the non-threatening Hancock bill, by a slim margin, and place it on the June ballot.

Another opposition clique is the political-industrial complex — the consultants, pollsters, ad-makers, attorneys —that fights public financing because it would dramatically reduce the currently enormous campaign money pot. Any candidate receiving public funds would need to agree to a low spending limit.

And it's a very hard sell to the public, especially in an era of multibillion-dollar budget deficits and universal mistrust of government. Why give politicians money to blow on negative TV ads?

"We have higher priorities in this state for the available resources," says Richard Wiebe, spokesman for the anti-15 campaign. "Programs have been cut across the board. This certainly is not the time to divert anything — divert a dollar — to political campaigns."

Besides, no public financing scheme could prevent a Meg Whitman or a Steve Poizner from exercising their constitutional right — as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court — to spend tens of millions of their own fortunes running for office.

And public financing couldn't stop labor unions, to use the most common example, from contributing to "independent expenditure" committees that promote Democratic candidates and rip their Republican opponents.

But back to little Prop. 15, which actually offers a big potential.

The measure is little because it would apply only to candidates for secretary of state, hardly a target of special interest influence. And it would be a "pilot project," in effect just for the 2014 and 2018 elections.

It would allow candidates to dip into the state treasury for $1 million in the primary and $1.3 million in the general election. They'd have to agree not to raise more than that, except for $75,000 in "start-up" money at $100 a pop max.

To be eligible, they'd need to collect $5 donations and signatures from 7,500 voters.

Minority party candidates generally would receive less.

The financing would be weird and unfair. Only lobbyists, their firms and the interests they represent would foot the bill. Their biennial fees would increase from $25 to $700, raising an estimated $6 million in every four-year election cycle.

So this isn't really public financing. It's lobbyist financing.

Income tax payers also could kick in some money voluntarily, on top of their tax liability. But good luck on that one.

And if both this and Prop. 14 — the open primary measure — should pass on June 8, it would be back to the Legislature for some major retooling of Prop. 15.

That's because Prop. 14 would eliminate party primaries. And the basic criteria for receiving public funds —being a party nominee — no longer would apply.

The Legislature could amend Prop. 15 to make it jibe with Prop. 14, but it would require a two-thirds vote. Not easy.

The lobbyist fee also could be ruled unconstitutional, as it has been in other states, on grounds that it's really a tax benefiting the whole public. Prop. 15 backers argue that there's a nexus between lobbyist fees and lobbyist regulation by the secretary of state. But there's not that much of a nexus.

No matter, the most important element of Prop. 15 would remain. And that's the elimination of the constitutional ban on public financing of state candidates. The ban also covers counties and most cities.

The Legislature then could enact public financing on its own without voter permission. And so could county boards of supervisors and all city councils.

This is what Prop. 15 really is about. And that's what worries the politicians and special interests.

It's a small, awkward step in a good direction.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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