Candidates for office have to raise so much campaign money that they become beholden to the big-spending interests that fund them rather than to the voters who elect them. But there's an alternative. In concept, at least, candidates who are instead fully financed by the public and elected by the public have undivided loyalty to the public. The problem with that system is that no state or local government that offers public financing may prevent candidates from choosing to raise and spend money the old-fashioned way, because the 1st Amendment guarantees their right to do so. So the solution — again, in concept — is a voluntary program in which each candidate chooses whether to be funded publicly or privately.
That leaves one last problem: Where does the public come up with all that money to pay for campaigns when it can't find enough now for schools, roads, human services and other necessary programs? One possible source is a special fee on some particular group. The Times initially opposed the legislation that became this year's Proposition 15, which would raise fees on lobbyists to pay for a limited public financing program, because there is no clear nexus between the lobbying profession and elections.
But it's worth noting that the initiative would try public financing only for two election cycles, and only for one office — the relatively low-key secretary of state. The proposed $350 lobbying fee is not unreasonably high, and besides, many (but by no means all) of the people who lobby elected officials are financed by the same people who made the big-money contributions to the candidates. Notwithstanding The Times' earlier reservations, we find that our concern about politicians' financial fealty to big-moneyed interests outweighs our worry over singling out lobbyists. The Times recommends a yes vote on Proposition 15.
The ballot measure has another key provision that also weighs in favor of a yes vote: It would lift an earlier ban on public financing. Even if the pilot program lapses without being renewed, or even if the lobbyist fee provision is struck down in court — as lobbyists for the lobbyists insist it will — city and county governments would still be able to experiment with their own public financing programs. Such local experimentation is a good thing, even if it doesn't ultimately lead to broader statewide programs. The Legislature too would be free to try additional statewide programs if it could muster the two-thirds vote needed to fund them.
Importantly, Proposition 15 gives candidates no entitlement to public money, so if the lobbyist fee doesn't generate enough, there is no automatic recourse to general taxpayer money without additional authorization. The program is limited in all the right places.
We're by no means sure that public financing is the solution to the troubling — and growing — problem of money in politics. It will certainly be hard for publicly financed candidates to compete against deep-pocketed candidates who opt out of the system. But it's worth a try.