Politics

LA's proposed campaign finance overhaul explained

FILE PHOTO: Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin has proposed a plan to expand public financing for qualified city office candidates and ban corporate donations, special interest money or significant self-financing.
FILE PHOTO: Los Angeles City Councilmember Mike Bonin has proposed a plan to expand public financing for qualified city office candidates and ban corporate donations, special interest money or significant self-financing.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Los Angeles City Council members will soon consider a proposal from Westside Councilman Mike Bonin that would expand public financing of campaigns for city elected offices. 

Bonin introduced the proposal Tuesday as part of a package of campaign financing reforms. Another proposal would prevent foreign donations to local elections and a third would increase disclosure of donors to groups advocating various causes.

Here's what you need to know about the public financing proposal:

How does Bonin’s proposal differ from what Los Angeles offers now?  

Los Angeles already has a public campaign financing system, but it’s limited in its scope. Candidates for mayor, city attorney, controller and City Council can apply for matching city funds to finance their campaigns if they meet certain criteria.  

For example, mayoral candidates who raise enough qualifying contributions and agree to debate their opponents can qualify. The candidates also agree to limit their campaign spending to about $3 million in the primary and a bit less for the general election.

In exchange, the candidate can get up to about $600,000 in public funds for the primary and $800,000 for the general.  

If approved, how would the new system work?

Bonin wants what he calls "full public financing," eliminating corporate and most private individual donations. He believes it would level the playing field for all candidates and encourage more people to run for office.

Under this proposed system, candidates who voluntarily agree to public financing would not take corporate contributions and limit those from individuals to a qualifying number of small donations. In exchange, the candidates would receive enough public dollars to pay for an aggressive campaign, according to Bonin.

How much could all of this cost taxpayers?  

No one knows at the moment. Bonin has called for city officials, including the City Legislative Analyst, to develop an estimate of the cost, but clearly it could be in the millions.

Bonin has suggested that the city could pay for the public financing by imposing fees on developers or a severance tax on oil and gas producers. That's sure to stir controversy.

What's the backstory? 

Bonin is proposing this as he and several other council members face re-election and in the wake of reports that council members — past and present — have received substantial contributions from certain developers.

Some council members, Bonin included, have called for a ban on donations from developers who have projects before the city.  

It should be noted that past councils have considered reforms like this before. A similar proposal in 2005 went nowhere – in large part because of the cost.

When could this new proposal take effect?

If Bonin’s proposal passes the council, city voters will need to approve it. A measure would be added to the 2018 ballot.  The new rules wouldn't be used until elections in 2020. So this won't impact this year's local election. The primary is on March 7 and the general on May 16. But it could become an issue in the campaigns.

Mayor Eric Garcetti is running for reelection and is way ahead of opponents in fundraising. He's declined public matching funds.

This story has been updated.