Thursday, February 13, 2003
Campaign Finance Reforms Kept Off City Council Floor As City Attorney’s Office Again Expresses Concern
By ROBERT GREENE, Associate Editor
Proposals to help city candidates respond to heavy independent spending was again kept off the City Council floor yesterday as critics warned that the new measures could spark costly litigation—and supporters countered that a campaign finance reform group has offered to defend the proposals and the city pro bono.
Facing a March deadline if new laws are to be in place for the 2005 elections, council President Alex Padilla kept the landmark Ethics Commission proposals in his rules committee and put over the debate to what will be a third straight committee session next week. In addition to concerns about litigation, Padilla said he believed adopting new restrictions on independent campaign expenditures could present “a glaring opportunity for people to manipulate the rules.”
But the primary stumbling block remains the office of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, which has warned that the proposals could violate the First Amendment and the city charter. Modest adjustments, intended to address the city attorney’s concerns, were offered yesterday by Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies and accepted by Ethics Commission President Miriam Krinsky, but it was unclear yesterday whether they would change the position of Delgadillo’s office.
“We just got the proposals today and we will evaluate them,” city attorney spokesman Eric Moses said.
Mayor James Hahn has said he will veto any independent expenditure ordinance that lacks sign-off from the city attorney, in part because of the potential expense of hiring outside counsel to defend a law in which the city attorney lacks confidence.
At issue is a package of reforms intended to allow candidates to raise more and spend more when their opponents receive windfall support from outside their campaigns. The phenomenon of independent expenditures blossomed in the 2001 city elections, in which hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent by groups and individuals not directly related to any campaign.
Independent money allowed candidates to benefit from organized support without breaching strict limits on the amount of money any person or group can give, as well as caps on how much campaigns can spend when they agree to accept city matching funds.
Soon after his election, Hahn vetoed a package of Ethics Commission reforms, saying it was flawed because it failed to deal with the independent spending issue. In response, the ethics panel introduced, debated and drafted reforms over the last year and a half.
The new measures would assure that candidates who reap the benefits of independent money do not also enjoy the bonus of breaking the fundraising and spending limits. Only the opponents not helped by independent spending would be able to raise more and spend more to keep pace.
Those opponents would also be able to get additional city matching funds. Corporations and unions would be banned from making independent donations from their treasuries.
Delgadillo, who was elected with the help of more than $700,000 in expenditures by billboard companies and others, has recused himself from the discussion, turning the matter over to his chief deputy, Terree Bowers.
Bowers wrote in a Jan. 30 report that allowing candidates not boosted by independent spending to break donation and spending caps while barring the candidates who did get the boost from the additional benefits could be seen by courts as unconstitutionally content-based. The changes also could render the voluntary spending caps, that come with participation in the matching fund program, unconstitutionally coercive, he wrote.
Bowers also cited the different treatment of unions, which could continue to use independent money to tell their members to vote for a candidate, and corporations, which would not be able to make any similar communications.
His conclusions were roundly criticized yesterday by advocates of the Ethics Commission proposals. Dan Tokaji of California Common Cause called the report “fatally flawed” and said it “should not be used as an excuse not to pass the package in its entirety.”
There was no content-based discrimination, Tokaji said, because there is no limit on how much independent groups or individuals can spend.
Tokaji also said that the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school has offered the city pro bono representation.
Stern said he strongly disagreed with Bowers’ conclusions but offered several compromises to address them. For-profit corporations should be allowed to use independent money to communicate with their shareholders, he said, candidates not benefited by independent money should be allowed to spend more but not raise more per donor, and changes to the matching fund program should be altered to assure that the matches remain matches, and not outright grants of city money that are not triggered by campaign donations.
Krinsky said her commission had studied the alternatives exhaustively and had reached what she said was the “best approach”—but she added that she had no problem with Stern’s suggestions.
Committee member Cindy Miscikowski said she was ready to send the package to the council floor. But Padilla said he was worried that restrictions on independent expenditures would serve only to cause groups to say they are campaigning for one candidate, when in fact their message would indicate they are backing the other.
“We can already envision how this could be manipulated,” Padilla said.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company