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L.A. ethics panel may raise campaign contribution limits

The increase, the first in 27 years, would more than double limits on candidates for City Council, mayor, city attorney and city controller. Staffers note that a dollar is worth half what it was in 1985.

February 03, 2012|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Council President Herb Wesson warned that without an increase, candidate-controlled campaigns would be overshadowed by independent expenditure committees, which have no donation or spending limits.
Council President Herb Wesson warned that without an increase, candidate-controlled… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission is weighing a plan to increase limits on campaign contributions for the first time in 27 years, more than doubling the amount of money donors can give to candidates.

The proposal, which the commission first discussed publicly on Thursday, would allow candidates for City Council to accept $1,100 per donor per election cycle, up from the current $500 limit. Candidates for mayor, city attorney and city controller would see the cap lifted to $2,200 from $1,000.

Commission staffers recommended that the limits be adjusted to account for inflation, saying that one dollar is worth half of what it was in 1985, when the caps were approved.

But Wayne Williams, a member of the California Clean Money Campaign's board, said the proposal would leave politicians at City Hall with little reason to accept taxpayer- funded matching funds, which require that candidates abide by spending limits.

"Increasing the limits ... only benefits those candidates with many wealthy connections, i.e. mostly incumbents," he told the panel.

Candidates for mayor have already raised more than $3.7 million even though the election is more than a year a way. Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), who is running for city attorney, took in $345,000 in less than four months.

Council President Herb Wesson asked the commission to consider lifting the contribution caps two months ago. He warned that without an increase, candidate-controlled campaigns would be overshadowed by independent expenditure committees, which have no donation or spending limits.

Those committees can send mailers, buy television advertising and fund telephone banks supporting or opposing candidates, as long as they don't coordinate their activities with candidates' campaigns.

"If it were me, I'd say let's have no limits at all but just report [donations] faster" to the public, Wesson told the panel in December.

Commissioner Nathan Hochman offered similar views, pointing out that newly elected Councilman Joe Buscaino raised nearly $193,000 during last month's runoff campaign while benefiting from nearly $473,000 in independent expenditures.

The independent spending involved such interest groups as the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the police officers' union and an organization affiliated with employees of the Department of Water and Power.

Commission officials noted that Houston, Philadelphia and New York City allow politicians to raise significantly larger sums from each contributor.

The proposals will be considered again Feb. 23. If the increases are tentatively approved that day, a final vote will be needed later this year, officials said.

Separately, commissioners took a first step toward allowing campaign donations to be made by text message. The panel also levied a fine of $89,500 against a contributor to Councilman Tony Cardenas for engaging in campaign money laundering — the practice of illegally exceeding contribution limits by funneling cash to campaigns through straw donors.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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