Prop 15: Step One in Breaking Big Money’s Strangle Hold on California Elections


Posted on 03 June 2010

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By Zack Kaldveer
Consumer Federation of California

Our state's broken campaign-finance system forces lawmakers to spend too much time begging for money from big contributors seeking favors and not enough time focusing on solving problems and representing their constituents.

Nearly $400 million was spent by candidates in California in the 2006 election – and over $1 billion since 2001.

The Consumer Federation of California witnesses first hand how this "pay to play" system undermines the public interest, as one proposed consumer protection law after another is crushed under a ton of corporate special-interest donations.

It’s not hard to understand why. California has among the weakest campaign finance rules of any state in the country. 

Findings detailed in a recent report by the Common Cause Education Fund on the November 2008 California elections tell the story:

•    97% of the time the candidate who raised the most money was elected,
•    96% of the funds came in amounts greater than $250,
•    Winning candidates outraised their opponents by ratios of at least 5-to-1 86% of the time,
•    All winners on average raised 133% more than their opponents.

An analysis by Maplight, a public database connecting money and politics, found that 79% of campaign funds raised by California legislators came from sources outside the candidate’s district. For nineteen legislators, 90% of more of their funds came from outsiders, with the biggest single zipcode being downtown Sacramento where most lobby firms are headquartered.

As expected, Maplight also found that business groups dominate the “contribution game” - paying for 40 percent of California legislators' campaigns over the last three years. These largely corporate interests provided more money than private citizens (17%) and labor unions (16%) combined. Political parties funded 12 percent of campaigns, with most of these funds directed towards a small handful of legislators. Advocacy groups – who’s role it is to defend the public interest - gave less than one percent of all campaign funds.

Proposition 15: The California Fair Elections Act

Proposition 15, the California Fair Elections Act, would change how we finance election campaigns by creating a pilot project to provide limited public financing for secretary of state candidates. The office is an ideal test. The secretary of state oversees elections and should be free from any influence – even perceived conflicts of interest – due to campaign contributions.

No Cost to Taxpayers, Tough New Rules

Prop. 15 is also strict:

•Candidates would have to show broad public support by gathering signatures and $5 contributions from 7,500 registered voters.

•Participating candidates would be banned from raising or spending beyond set amounts.

•Spending limits and reporting requirements would be strictly enforced. Violators
would face fines, jail time and a prohibition from running for office.

No taxpayer dollars would fund candidates. Public financing would be funded primarily by increasing the registration fees on lobbyists. California lobbyists only pay $12.50 per year, among the lowest registration fees in the country. Voters and cities will be paid back many times over when those fees are raised to a reasonable $350 to pay for Fair Elections.

Fair Election systems are voluntary. No new limits are imposed on candidates that choose to raise funds the traditional way. Those seeking elected office would simply have the option to free themselves from the endless search for big money donors
and the corrosive influence this financial dependency engenders.

Public Financing: A Proven Model of Success

Fair Elections have been proven successful in eight states and two cities. Nearly 400 candidates were elected using only fair elections funding in their 2008 campaigns, and the programs enjoy popular support across party lines. Elections in those states are far more competitive – unlike California, where the median winning candidate outspent the median losing candidate in 2008 by a startling 28-1.

The results have been extraordinary in states that have enacted full public financing of campaigns (ME, AZ, and CT):

•    On average, winners out raised opponents by a greater than five-to-one ratio only 33% of the time,
•    All winners raised only 29% more than their opponents, and
•    Only 6% of total funds came from donors giving more than $250.

By freeing elected officials from big donors, Fair Elections have also saved voters money. Connecticut passed a bottle recycling bill generating up to $17 million annually after 81 percent of their Legislature was elected with Fair Elections. North Carolina's Fair Elections Insurance Commissioner forced insurance companies to rebate $50 million in overcharges and rolled back rates 9.4 percent. 

Other benefits include lower overall campaign spending, candidates spending more time listening to constituents, increased voter turnout, and more women, people of color and less-affluent candidates competing for public office – and winning.

For these reasons, the fact that Prop 15 would remove the ban on public financing of campaigns becomes all the more important. If the pilot project is successful, it can be expanded. It also would allow any city or county to choose public financing for local races.

So while Prop 15 is a modest, two election, one office pilot project, if passed, it could mark the beginning of a truly pro-democracy movement with profound implications for every Californian.

Prop 15: Public Interest Groups Support, Lobbyists Oppose

Groups like the Consumer Federation of California, League of Women Voters, California Nurses Association, Sierra Club California, California Common Cause, and AARP – all who have lobbyists – support Proposition 15.

In contrast, all but one of the donors to the ballot committee opposing Prop 15 comes from either a lobby firm, individual lobbyist, or a lobby employer – including BP’s lobby firm, Political Solutions.

The recent Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts on campaigns only adds to the urgency of this moment. Elected officials should be accountable to the voters, not donors and special interests. Vote YesonProp15.org.

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Zack Kaldveer is the Communications Director of the Consumer Federation of California, a non-profit advocacy organization. Since 1960 CFC has testified before the California legislature annually on dozens of bills that affect millions of consumers. Zack also authors the blog Privacy Revolt.