Political funding could change;

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Prop. 89 makes financing public

The Ventura County Star (California)

Imagine a world in which politicians didn’t have to sweet talk special-interest groups in order to raise money to get elected, in which the support of a waitress would be just as valuable as the support of a CEO or a union president, in which a truck driver would have as good an opportunity to run for political office as a lawyer.

Imagine also a world in which the arrival of campaign season didn’t mean that it was time for wave after wave of incessant, insulting and cynical television commercials about ballot propositions, paid for with tens of millions of dollars in big-business contributions.

This is the world envisioned by supporters of Proposition 89, the initiative on the Nov. 7 ballot designed to fundamentally change the way political campaigns are conducted in California.

It proposes to change races for public office by creating a pot of tax money that candidates for state office could tap into if they agreed to reject private campaign contributions, and it proposes to end the ballot proposition wars as we know them by limiting to $10,000 the amount that any corporation could give to an initiative campaign.

Supporters call their plan a cure for corruption.

Opponents call it a mirage.

Those backing the initiative include the California Nurses Association, which paid for the signature-gathering effort that placed it on the ballot; the League of Women Voters; California Common Cause; and a number of environmentalist groups, including the Sierra Club.

Opponents include such business groups as the California Chamber of Commerce, the Building Industry Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation, joined by a number of big labor groups, including the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers.

The two sides’ views of the political world that Proposition 89 would create are starkly different.

Proposition 89 will end cash-register politics,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

“This would radically destabilize California’s political structure,” said Larry McCarthy, president of the California Taxpayers Association.

Proposition 89 would level the playing field so that public interest groups’ message could be heard without being drowned out by a flood of corporate cash,” said Bill Magavern, senior representative of Sierra Club California.

“It’s an attempt to eliminate the ability of certain segments of society to communicate with voters on ballot propositions. I don’t think there’s anything more unfair,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce.

How it would work

The one area of agreement: Proposition 89 would force a radical shift in the status quo of California politics.

The public financing portion of the initiative is modeled after ballot measures that were enacted in Maine (1996) and Arizona (1998). It would allow candidates for state office — from governor down to members of the Legislature — to choose whether they want to conduct traditional, privately financed campaigns or instead foreswear all private money and run their campaigns entirely with public financing.

Those who choose to accept public financing would first have to demonstrate their credibility by raising a threshold number of $5 contributions from individuals they seek to represent — either from all across California in the case of statewide candidates, or from within their districts in the case of legislators.

In the only full-scale statewide campaign waged in Arizona under these rules, in 2002, slightly more than half of all candidates chose public financing. In the statewide races, 11 of 17 candidates used public financing and seven of the nine winners — including the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

In a 2003 study of the Arizona system, the federal Government Accountability Office asked participating candidates why they chose public financing. Eighty-one percent said they did so because “I did not want to feel obligated to special-interest groups or lobbyists.”

One of the statewide winners was Corporations Commissioner Mark Spitzer, the former Republican leader of the Arizona Senate who had been a vocal opponent of the public-financing initiative when it was on the ballot in 1998.

He is now one of the system’s biggest advocates, saying that not only does it allow elected officials to weigh issues on their merits without having to factor in implications on financial supporters, but also that it frees a candidate to reach out beyond his or her traditional fundraising base.

“People are campaigning before groups that had previously been untouched,” Spitzer said in a visit to Sacramento to speak on behalf of public financing. “It is a wonderful thing. It is a tonic.”

The Arizona experience helped to persuade the League of Women Voters of California to embrace Proposition 89, President Trudy Schafer said.

“We’ve come to believe full public financing is the only way to go,” she said. “It puts power back into the hands of individual voters. People will be able to trust that candidates listen to the everyday voter.”

Opponents assert that such views are naïve because professional politicians and campaign consultants will inevitably find ways to beat the system.

Longtime political analyst Tony Quinn, publisher of California’s leading political data reference book, says two mischievous trends are likely to develop if Proposition 89 passes: Interest groups would increase the use of independent expenditure campaigns, and the major parties would recruit fringe, third-party candidates who, because they would receive public financing, would be able to garner enough votes to swing an election.

Both of those trends played out in Arizona, Quinn said.

“It presents a great opportunity for the major parties to corrupt the process, as they have done in the past,” Quinn said.

Zaremberg, of the Chamber of Commerce, said public financing of political campaigns would be a poor use of tax dollars that could be spent elsewhere.

“Nowhere do I see any support for California’s very scarce and very dear tax revenues being spent on negative ads,” he said. “In California, you’d be eligible for a quarter-million dollars to spend however you see fit.”

Supporters assert that the public loses much more money under the current system, when elected officials pass favorable tax breaks and other laws to benefit the wealthy interests that now finance political campaigns.

In a recent television ad, they cite the analysis of the system offered by candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election: “Special interests have a stranglehold on California. Here’s how it works: Money comes in; favors go out. The people lose.”

Proposition 89 supporters say their initiative is the prescription to change that formula. “With Proposition 89,” campaign spokesman Shum Preston said, “lobbyists won’t be able to buy elections anymore.”

Complicating the debate over Proposition 89 is its provision that would, for the first time, place limits on contributions to ballot measure campaigns — but only on corporate contributions.

Zaremberg said such a limit would gag corporations and open the door for well-heeled individuals to finance ideologically motivated initiatives and wage one-sided campaigns.

He cites this year’s Proposition 90, placed on the ballot by a wealthy New York developer. The measure is opposed by a broad coalition of groups in California, which is relying primarily on business groups to fund the opposition campaign.

“You may have the same issue with school vouchers,” Zaremberg said. “That’s happened before.”

Voter anger seen

Supporters, who at first did not call much attention to the ballot measure contribution limit in Proposition 89, are now seeking to use it as a major selling point.

Seizing what they see as voter anger over the barrage of television advertising this fall against Propositions 86 and 87 — funded by tens of millions of dollars from, respectively, the tobacco and oil industries — supporters have released a new commercial that promises an end to these advertising assaults.

It shows voters, one by one, walking beneath a pile-driving machine and being pounded. The narrator says: “Rich politicians, political parties and lobbyists keep pounding you with lies, distortions and half-truths, day after day, with millions of dollars of ads until you believe their lies, or get beaten down and decide to stay home and not vote. But this year, you can stop it with one hand. Just vote ‘Yes’ on Proposition 89.”

The ads were created by Bill Hillsman, who also created the TV ads that propelled Jesse Ventura to the governorship in Minnesota.

Hillsman, who says he specializes in “insurgent campaigns,” said the best ads are designed with their audience in mind.

“If you went out on the street and asked 100 people whether they were sick of all the initiative ads, 100 people would say they are,” he said.
Contact the author at [email protected]

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