SANTA CLARITA - Residents fed up with ballooning campaign spending will ask local officials to follow lawmakers in Los Angeles and Sacramento who are considering public campaign finance plans. Even if the City Council embraces the measure, it would be too late for the April 11 City Council election, where three seats are up for grabs.
"Money should not buy elections," said Carol Lutness, who heads the Santa Clarita Valley Clean Money for Better Government Committee. "I'm not blaming people who are in office; I'm blaming the way the political system is structured. The structure of how we elect all of our politicians has to be changed or we're going to lose the power of the people to have a real say in government to backroom deals and big-money interests."
The nonprofit California Clean Money Campaign proposes providing qualified candidates with money deemed adequate to run their campaigns, in return for the candidates promising to reject other contributions.
Candidates would qualify for public funding by collecting a set number of $5 contributions from people in their district to prove they have support, and by promising not to accept other private funds. Additional money would be available ’"up to a cap’"if the "clean money" candidates are being outspent by privately funded candidates, proponents said.
"Candidates are freed from the task of fundraising," said Eric Tang, a spokesman for the nonprofit California Clean Money Campaign. "It is where candidates can focus on the needs and concerns of their constituents rather than dialing for dollars."
The local group will propose the measure to council members at Wednesday's meeting. The financing mechanism for the local law has not been worked out yet, Lutness said.
If council members are not receptive, the committee may gather signatures’"9,000 are needed, Lutness said’"to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
The statewide organization is working with the Los Angeles City Council to craft a clean-money proposal for that city, which currently offers partial public campaign funding through matching funds. The Los Angeles City Council has passed a resolution 11-0 in support of creating the proposal. If the Los Angeles City Council approves the measure, voters would have to vote on it.
Tang said his organization is aiding the Santa Clarita Valley committee, which is seeking bipartisan community support. Lutness, who is chairman of the 38th Assembly District for the Democratic Party, is joined on the steering committee by Joan and Ed Dunn, who are middle-of-the-road Republicans.
Ed Dunn has served on two local water boards. He and Joan lost their bid for water board seats in the 2005 election. Dunn's experience fuels his passion for the measure.
"Strong special interests locally did not want us on the water boards," Ed Dunn said. The couple raised $5,000 to $7,000 in campaign funds between them, he said. "The opposition raised more than $40,000 to push us off the board. That says it all, why we need the clean money."
Not everyone agrees. Since 2000, a voluntary clean-money system has funded campaigns in the state of Arizona. An analyst at The Goldwater Institute in Arizona said clean money's promise to increase the number of candidates and competition, and to lessen the influence of special interests, has fallen flat.
Analyst Benjamin Barr cited a study in 2003 that found no statistical difference in the slate of candidates before and after Arizona's clean-money measure took effect.
"We were unable to back up empirical claims that clean elections are working," said Barr, an analyst at the institute's Center for Constitutional Studies.
The center's own study scrutinized whether clean-money candidates voted differently than their privately funded opponents, but found no difference, he said.
"When it comes down to it, the ideology of the legislator and the need of the constituents was most controlling," Barr said.
Legislators in Sacramento are considering Assembly Bill 583, which would provide "clean money" to candidates running for statewide office: up to $60 million for governor candidates, $1.8 million for state Senate bids and $900,000 for Assembly bids. The measure, which is before the Senate, could cost taxpayers more than $100 million a year, legislative analysts have said.
Assemblyman Keith Richman, R-Granada Hills, who must give up his Assembly seat under state term limits and who is campaigning for state treasurer, abstained from voting on the bill. Richman said he is philosophically supportive of public financing for campaigns, but many details in this bill had not been fully worked out.
Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, said he favors immediate reporting of contributions so voters will know who backs whom.
"Disclosure and disclosure as fast as you can is the best way to see how money is flowing into the campaigns," he said.
Spending limits on the clean campaigns may be cumbersome, and may spawn independent financing campaigns not by candidates but by their supporters who are bound by fewer rules, Runner added.
Some question whether taxpayers should be paying to elect candidates they do not support.
The maximum contribution now allowed for individuals and businesses alike in Santa Clarita elections is $360.
For April's race, as of Feb. 1, Councilman Frank Ferry had raised $108,000, Mayor Laurene Weste raised $48,000 and Councilwoman Marsha McLean, who is in line to be the next mayor, had raised nearly $22,000. Challengers Henry Schultz had raised $1,200, Michael Cruz raised about $2,590 and Mark Hershey had raised $2,860.
While many are looking to the future for answers, Goldwater Institute analyst Barr suggested looking back at James Madison's writings in the Federalist Papers. Madison's answer to dealing with factions was to allow them to flourish and cancel themselves out.
"Allow various interests to collide, and provide for full disclosure," Barr said.