Thursday, October 11, 2001
Group Warns Special Interests, Rich Candidates Threaten Campaign Reform
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Campaign spending by rich candidates and independent groups threatens to undermine Los Angeles’ 11-year-old public finance program for city elections, according to an organization headed by one of the drafters of the groundbreaking reforms.
Public matching funds have helped encourage cash-poor candidates to run credible campaigns and have made city elections more competitive, the report released yesterday by the Center for Governmental Studies said. But it added that laws must evolve to keep pace with “the fast changing world of political campaigns.”
The report urged lawmakers to lower election spending limits for council races, to raise them for mayoral elections and to shrink the period in which donations to office-seekers are eligible to be matched by taxpayer funds.
Attorney Robert Stern, who wrote the landmark state Political Reform Act of 1974 and served as a consultant to authors of the city campaign reform laws in 1990, is the president of the Los Angeles-based center, as well as its general counsel and an officer on its board.
The center analyzed campaign contributions and spending from 1989 through last June, when James Hahn defeated Antonio Villaraigosa in mayoral campaigning fueled by unprecedented influxes of cash from political parties, labor unions and private companies not officially associated with the candidates. Such independent expenditures are not subject to campaign spending limits, but can still serve to lift spending caps for opponents.
Spending by wealthy candidates who opt out of the matching funds program also lift caps for everyone in the race, but critics note that caps remain in place on matching funds so less-rich opponents still fall behind.
The report recommended boosting city funding for candidates facing opponents who spend lots of their own money or are backed by independent expenditure committees, increasing the matching fund rate from dollar-for-dollar to two-to-one in council races, and turn over a lump sum of city money to council candidates who make a runoff, so they don’t have to spend so much time fundraising.
The report also called for lowering the spending limit of $330,000, in place for council candidates who opt to take matching funds in primary elections, to $275,000. In the last two election years, the report said, only 13 of 90 candidates spent more than $275,000.
For mayoral elections, the report said spending limits should go from $2.2 million to $4 million in primaries and from $1.76 million to $3 million in runoffs.
The report comes at a key time for city campaign reformers. The Ethics Commission, which administers the public matching funds program, recently proposed a package of reforms that included much of what the report recommended, including an increase in the rate of matching funds and a narrowing of the matching fund window. The City Council passed the measures but they were vetoed by Hahn, who said the commission should instead offer a more comprehensive package.
The ethics panel also has found itself at odds with the state Fair Political Practices Commission over the meaning and effect of Proposition 34, a statewide initiative last year that exempted certain groups, such as political parties and unions, from local donation disclosure requirements. The Legislature has since rolled back the exemption for parties.
The commission and the council have aimed at getting a new package of reforms by the end of the year.
LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said she was pleased that the center’s findings were similar to her panel’s.
“It’s an important addition to the debate,” Pelham said.
The commission staff is in the midst of crafting a new set of reform laws in the wake of the expected release tomorrow of the panel’s own report on the 2001 elections.
The Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies who otherwise might not consider running for office
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company