State Senate bill would empower citizen-funded elections (The Orange County Register)

Paul S. Ryan
Aug 29, 2016
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The California Assembly should vote Monday to pass Senate Bill 1107, which would improve citizens’ ability to engage in the democratic process by empowering local governments to establish citizen-funded elections.

It’s a measure that is long overdue to amend the Political Reform Act, a law that was passed in 1974 to clean up money in California politics, but amended in 1988 to prohibit an important and effective reform: public financing of elections. The California Supreme Court held that the public financing ban could not apply to charter cities. But the ban still applies to non-charter cities. SB1107 would empower all local governments to establish voluntary citizen-funded programs for certain candidates if they chose to do so.

Critics of the measure claim that the California Assembly, in voting for SB1107, would go against “the will of the people,” who voted to ban public financing by ballot initiative. But the provision was never truly reflective of California voters’ stance on public financing. The public financing ban was included as an amendment to the Act through Proposition 73, placed on the 1988 ballot by incumbent legislators with an interest in protecting their political power. The measure was placed on the ballot during a crowded, low-turnout June primary.

The initiative banning public financing was passed almost 30 years ago. Today, there’s no question where Californians stand on public financing. Recent ballot initiatives in charter cities across California demonstrate that there is a popular appetite for public financing statewide. Six charter cities, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Francisco, have adopted public financing programs. Berkeley could soon become the seventh city this election cycle.

Critics also claim that the California Assembly is overstepping, and is outside its legal right to vote on this measure. But The Political Reform Act explicitly provides that the legislature may directly amend its provisions, without voter approval, in order “to further [the Act’s] purposes.” The PRA’s professed purposes include (1) creating more responsive state and local government, (2) diminishing the disproportionate influence of special interests over government actions, and (3) reducing the advantages of incumbency.

SB1107 furthers all three of these stated goals.

By offering California cities and municipalities the option to establish public financing programs, SB1107 would change the way politicians campaign by encouraging candidates to engage with and respond to a broader section of the electorate. Studies by the Campaign Finance Institute and the National Institute of Money in State Politics have shown that public financing programs foster greater civic engagement than campaign finance systems relying exclusively on private donations. Similarly, the U.S. Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo recognized that public financing programs “facilitate and enlarge public discussion and participation in the electoral process, goals vital to a self-governing people.”

Additionally, SB1107 simultaneously works to lessen the sway of special interests over governmental processes and diminishes the financial benefits of incumbency. Multiple studies have documented that special interest groups are more likely to contribute to incumbents’ than political newcomers, and that money from special interests is a leading factor in incumbents’ electoral advantage.

Public financing programs reduce candidates’ reliance on special interests and offer an alternative to big money donors as the source of election funding. These programs embolden newcomers without the backing of wealthy donors to enter the political arena. The result is elected officials who represent the needs and priorities of their actual constituents – not just special interests. Through its advancement of these goals, SB1107 is entirely compatible with the mandates of California’s Constitution generally, and the PRA specifically, as the bill works “to further [the] purposes” of the Act.

As a final note, it is important to stress what SB1107 does not entail. The bill does not compel cities and municipalities to institute public financing programs for local elections. It does not mandate that local governments appropriate funds for candidates’ use. It does not raise taxes or institute any fees.

SB1107 simply gives local governments the ability to determine whether to create a public financing program for local elections. In essence, the bill restores local autonomy at the expense of centralized authority.

Paul S. Ryan is deputy executive director at the Campaign Legal Center. He has specialized in campaign finance, ethics, and election law for more than a decade and is former Political Reform Project Director at the Center for Governmental Studies (1999-2004) in Los Angeles. Mr. Ryan litigates campaign finance issues before federal and state courts throughout the United States and has published extensively on the subject of election law in journals including the Stanford Law and Policy Review and the Harvard Journal on Legislation.

This piece originally ran in The Orange County Register on August 29, 2016. To read it there, click here.

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