Prop 15 stirs up debate over publicly financed campaigns

Crisp $20 U.S. bills.
Crisp $20 U.S. bills.
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Proposition 15 renews a long-running effort to get money out of politics with “public campaign financing.” That means government collects money — and divvies it up among candidates for office.

Prop 15 covers only one office — secretary of state — and for only two elections. But the measure’s opponents say it’s just a first step toward public financing of all political campaigns.

At the California Democratic Convention in Los Angeles this spring, State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) worked the halls to win delegates' support for Proposition 15.

The ballot measure started out as a bill Hancock sponsored as a newly-elected member of the state Assembly. Hancock says by the end of her first year in office one thing was clear to her: “The enormous influence of special interest money defines so much of what is possible and what is not possible in Sacramento.” Hancock said.

Hancock says money you get from businesses, unions or other groups is money you stand to lose if you vote against them.

“One time, we had a caucus because the new members we’re saying they were afraid,” Hancock recalled. “Walking into the chambers was like running the gauntlet, they said, because you’d have people wanting to talk to you, grabbing your arm, that kind of thing.”

Proposition 15 calls for a test of an alternate way to pay for political campaigns. It would hike the $25 registration fee lobbyists pay to the state every two years to $700. There are several thousand lobbyists in the state. The higher fees would raise about $6 million over four years. That money would pay for the campaigns of candidates for one statewide office: secretary of state, California’s top elections official.

“We know that candidates have to raise money to run for office.” Tracy Westen says “The question is where the money comes from.”

Westen’s with the Center for Governmental Studies and has studied public campaign financing. He says a Common Cause analysis found that in nearly every Assembly race in California, the richer candidate wins.

“I think there is a serious problem both in reality and perception.” Westen said. “People who don’t contribute to candidates don’t get much of their attention when they’re elected.”

Westen says when states adopt public financing for campaigns, more candidates run – and the ones who win spend less time fundraising once they’re in office.

The Center for Governmental Studies helped write a ballot measure two decades ago to create a public campaign financing system in California. Voters approved it – but they also approved a competing measure to ban public campaign financing. The California Supreme Court struck down the first measure – and upheld the second.

Richard Weibe, who runs the “No on Prop 15” campaign, says Prop 15 flips that around.

“Prop 15 repeals the ban on the public financing of campaigns that voters themselves enacted 22 years ago.” Weibe says. “Not just for the Secretary of State’s race, but for any race in the state from city counsel to governor..”

If the account for publicly-funded campaigns runs low, Prop 15 says lawmakers can tap just about any source to get more money. Wiebe says that means new taxes or new fees – or money shifted from the state’s general fund.

"The proponents of Prop 15 have done a great job of portraying this as an innocent pilot project that only lobbyists are going to pay for" Weibe warns. “But as we have learned so many times before with initiative politics you have to look at the actual language of prop 15 to see what it really does.”

Prop 15’s “actual language” does say lawmakers can pass a bill to add money to the public campaign financing account. But doing it would require a two-thirds vote – and the governor’s signature.

Prop 15’s backers also say this is just a test that affects only one office and for only two elections.

Prop 15’s opponents say if it’s just a test, why would it repeal the ban on public campaign financing for every elected office?

Backing Prop 15 are the league of Women Voters, Common Cause and AARP.

Opposed are various business and union groups – and three former members of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.