08/09/2011 06:52 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

California Campaign Finance Reform Needed: Report

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Will Evans

California needs an overhaul of its campaign finance system to reduce the influence of money in politics, according to a report by the Center for Governmental Studies.

The report [PDF] proposes a model law that would lower contribution limits, ban fundraising in non-election years and establish a public financing system for candidates.

"People who want to run for office just can't afford to do so unless they're wealthy or they have connections to special interests," said report author Bob Stern. "Public financing increases the number of candidates who can run. It gives those candidates who want to steer away from the special interests an option to do so."

The proposed reforms would give a chunk of public money to candidates who raise an initial amount of small contributions. Candidates then could continue to raise small donations ­­- up to a $100 limit - and would receive four times that amount in matching public funds. The public money would be raised by a surtax on fines and criminal penalties, much like Arizona's public financing system. Stern says his proposal would avoid the elements of Arizona's system that were recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stern said he doesn't expect the state Legislature to pass his model law, but hopes that it could become a ballot measure someday.

The public, though, likely will frown on such a proposal, said Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman.

"To think in a time like this of huge cutbacks in public services that the public is going to allow their tax dollars to go to any candidate who wants to participate is just ridiculous," Stutzman said. "Taxpayers have rightly always opposed that type of notion."

Stern said California's contribution limits - $3,900 to a legislative candidate, $26,000 to a gubernatorial candidate - are "way too high." His proposal would lower them to the limits used in federal races for those candidates who opt out of public financing.

Stern's model law also would ban off-year fundraising, which is popular among state politicians. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, already has a committee raising money for a potential run for lieutenant governor in 2018. It raised $269,000 this year from energy and health care companies, labor unions, and Indian tribes.

Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, also set up a committee for a lieutenant governor campaign in 2018. He already has a committee for another Senate run in 2014 that's raised $165,000 this year from industry associations and companies like Walmart, AT&T and cigarette maker Altria.

Neither Steinberg nor Berryhill returned calls for comment.

Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, whose 2014 campaign account has $204,000, said the money will allow her to help fellow legislators in their upcoming races.

"I always feel that I can always be prepared and help others," she said.

Stern argued that contributions given far before a campaign starts are primarily aimed at buying access in order to influence votes. His proposal, he said, would make legislators focus on the merits of legislation rather than perpetually raising money.

"I know how the system works," he said. "If you have two people waiting in your office and one has given you $10,000 and one has given you zero, who do you see first?"

Stutzman, however, said lowering contribution limits will put even more pressure on candidates to start raising money early. He said legislators facing term limits should be allowed to plan for future statewide campaigns. Stutzman, instead, would propose raising contribution limits to $100,000 per election and require immediate public disclosure of the donations.

Either way, reforms like the ones in Stern's report will not stop special interests from spending money, Stutzman said.

"You can kink a hose in one place, but it just bubbles up somewhere else," he said. "The money's going to flow."

Stern's proposal is based in part on the public financing system in Arizona, which was passed in 1998. In June, the Supreme Court struck down part of the law that gave publicly financed candidates more money based on the spending of their opponents. The court ruled that the matching funds provision placed an unconstitutional burden on political speech.

Todd Lang, executive director of Arizona's Citizens Clean Elections Commission, said the state will continue to give an initial lump sum to candidates who "run clean." He expects that about half of all state candidates will continue to use the weakened public financing system.

Some critics of Arizona's system have argued that it gives a leg up to fringe candidates. But Lang said allowing more candidates to run is a major strength of the system.

"What (critics) are really saying is, 'We want fewer choices for the voters,' which is fundamentally undemocratic," Lang said. "The determination of who is best qualified to serve should be made by the voters."

Will Evans is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.