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March 8 Endorsement

Yes on Measure H

Campaign reform isn't easy, and Measure H isn't perfect. But it's a step in the right direction.

February 18, 2011

Campaign reform is like a game of whack-a-mole: Knock down a special interest's ability to influence an election and it pops up somewhere else — in the form of an independent expenditure committee, for example, that doesn't contribute directly to candidates but nonetheless mounts a costly effort on their behalf.

Measure H would ban bidders for city contracts larger than $100,000 from contributing to candidates for city office. "Bidders" would include the chief officers of a company and those who own more than a certain percentage in it. Yet there would be ample wiggle room around its provisions. A company might, for instance, put off any new bids until after the election, or it might form an independent expenditure committee to back a candidate indirectly; courts have ruled that these committees have more leeway in how they spend their money. What's more, Measure H's reach is limited. Current city contractors could contribute as long as they do not have a bid before the city for a new or renewed contract. Unions, which regularly have business with the city, also could donate as long as they are not in the process of bidding on a contract.

In other words, the city would still be a long way from removing conflicts of interest from campaigns. Yet Measure H deserves a yes vote because it takes one significant step in that direction. If there is a group whose contributions present the single biggest potential conflict for city candidates, it is the people or companies that stand to receive direct financial benefits from the decisions that those candidates would make once they reach office.

A separate provision of Measure H seeks to wean candidates off special-interest contributions by enlarging the city's existing campaign trust fund. The fund matches campaign contributions for candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending. Measure H proponents point out that the fund is popular with first-time candidates who have few outside resources; when those candidates win a seat and have access to more contributions from more special interests, they are far less likely to participate in the fund.

The city currently puts about $3 million into the campaign trust fund each year, until the fund reaches a cap of about $12 million. Measure H would remove the cap so that the fund could grow, making it more likely that every candidate could receive public funding up to the specified limit.

There is an element of ballot-box budgeting in a proposal that requires setting aside a certain sum of money each year for a special purpose, and we generally frown on such measures because governing bodies need the flexibility to spend available funds where they are most needed. But the city already is committed to the campaign trust fund under a city measure passed 20 years ago, and Measure H actually provides more, not less, spending flexibility. In times of fiscal emergency, the City Council could vote to reduce or suspend the annual payment to the fund. That along with the greater value of reducing special-interest influence in elections — and, we hope, in the decisions of local government — make Measure H worthy of support.

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