Many political purists have long supported the separation of church and state. Supporters of a state proposition appearing on ballots next month are making an analogous request — the separation of private monies from public campaigns.
Proposition 15, they maintain, will do just that by launching a pilot program to usher in public funds for use in statewide political races fraught with too much special interest money.
Known as the Fair Elections Act, Prop. 15 calls for a temporary fee increase on lobbyists during the 2014 and 2018 campaigns for California secretary of state. If Prop. 15 passes and enough money is raised through the pilot program to publicly fund political campaigns, it’s hoped by supporters that a new law could be set into place lifting a ban to make available mandatory public funding to anyone running for any public office.
Opponents of Prop. 15 criticize the ballot measure as another unfair tax increase on the backs of lobbyists. They also point to two prior campaign finance ballot measures rejected by California voters in the past decade.
Now $12.50 per group annually, lobbyist fees in California would increase to $350 a year under Prop. 15 for the next two secretary of state races. There are more than 1,200 registered lobbyists statewide. Should the pilot program succeed following the 2018 secretary of state bid, it’s hoped it could extend to other political races across California, from governor to the small-town council seat. To qualify, candidates would need to receive $5 each from 7,500 registered voters in order to obtain as much as $1 million in primary election campaigns, $1.3 million in general elections.
The goal, says Trent Lange, director of the Yes on Prop. 15 campaign, is to generate enough money through the program that political hopefuls, some of whom don’t have enough private or corporate backing, can be provided money to run decent campaigns.
“It allows candidates who can’t run for office who don’t have enough funds,” he says.
But because some people seeking election don’t have enough private funding from lobbyists at their disposal, there are political races where the candidate with the most money, rather than the most qualified candidate, wins, according to Jay Kapitz, director of the Ventura County arm of Yes on Prop. 15.
“They (lobbyists) have a lot of money they control,” Kapitz says. “It’s big dollars, and that’s what this is all about, to get dollars out of politics.”
“Money is corrupting the political process,” says Ventura County First District Supervisor Steve Bennett, who supports the initiative. “Although this is a small step, it’s a big step to decrease big money in politics.”
Mike Stubblefield, president of the Los Padres chapter of the Sierra Club, supports Prop. 15 and says that politicians who raise the better amount of private funding and support don’t always represent what people need.
“Many of the candidates for statewide office, as far as Sierra Club California is concerned, … are funded by special interest,” he said. “Oftentimes, these are the people who are the least appropriate for making decisions on what’s right for the environment. Money makes it so difficult to assess the truth.”
With public campaign funding more readily available, a wider variety of politicians without private, special interests could step up to the plate, says Bennett.
“Yes, I think ultimately, if we can get public financing, we would have dramatically different politicians and dramatically different results,” he said.
Taxpayer organizations are vehemently opposed.
“We don’t feel it’s real campaign reform,” says Don Facciano, director of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association. “It raises taxes with no accountability and will provide millions to politicians to fund their negative campaigns.”
Facciano says the passage of Prop. 15 won’t prevent special interest money from ever being a part of political campaigns, either.
“The politicians are still going to raise money through those special groups,” he says.
The state chamber of commerce also does not support Prop. 15. Tom Kelley, executive director of the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce, says the Fair Elections Act isn’t fair to lobbyist groups.
“It uses taxpayer money and picks on a particular thing, which they say is lobbyists, to pay for it,” Kelley says.
Kapitz believes that Prop. 15 opponents are writing off the ballot measure as just another tax increase without looking at the bigger picture.
“Their theory is that since lobbyists are taxpayers, and that fees will increase … they call it a tax increase to the public,” he says. “It’s bogus and a lie.”
Public financing of political campaigns, for cities governed under general law, is currently prohibited after the passage of Proposition 73 in 1998. Only charter cities, Lange said, can choose a private vs. public financing electoral system.