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Campaign for publicly-funded elections kicks off in Oakland

on February 9, 2010

While corporations, lobbyists and special interest groups may have gloated over the Supreme Court’s ruling last month that decreed that the government has no power to ban corporate spending in political campaigns, if Californian voters pass Proposition 15 in the June 8th election, they may have another chance to set limits on corporate election spending.

The campaign for Proposition 15, or the California Fair Election Act, was kicked off on Saturday at the Oakland City Hall.  “There is a growing sense of desperation for clean elections and [voters’] voices should be heard,” said Democratic State Senator Loni Hancock of Oakland in the opening speech.

If passed, Proposition 15 would be the first public financing program in California since 1988, when voters passed Proposition 73, which outlawed any limits on campaign spending. It would run as a pilot program for the State of Secretary election in 2014 and 2018.

Proposition 15 would ban donations from corporations or special interest groups for any candidates who chose to be part of the program. It would also give candidates with public support, but who do not have enough capital to fund their campaigns, money to compete against those who have enough private funding. To qualify as a candidate under Proposition 15, candidates must first show that they have broad public support by gathering $5 contributions from 7,500 registered Californian voters. Then, they must reject private fundraising and agree to limit spending to the amount provided by the public.

Once they become eligible, candidates would receive $1 million 90 days before the primary in Fair Elections funds, and upon winning the primary they would receive an additional $1.3 million to prepare for the general election.  All the candidates would have to give back any unused funds at the end of the election. This allocation is based on the money that the current California Secretary of State Debra Bowen spent on her 2006 campaign.

Proposition 15 would not eliminate privately-funded candidates such as former Governor Gray Davis, who spent $78 million in privately raised funds.  Davis spent more than any other politician in a non-presidential election.  But Proposition 15 would provide a dollar-for-dollar base matching funds when a publicly-funded candidate is outspent by privately-funded candidates; the candidates are eligible up to $5.2 million. “It will create a fair election system, and candidates who will be in the Fair Elections system can be competitive even in the most severe election races,” said Trent Lange, the chair of Californians for Fair Elections.

Proposition 15 would be funded by a $350 annual registration fee charged to lobbyists, lobbying firms and employers of lobbyist groups. Currently lobbyists only pay $12.50 per year in support of fair elections.

According to the Fair Political Practices Commission, candidates and elected officials have directly raised over $1 billion in California since 2001 under voter-approved fundraising limits. “Elections should be about ideas, not money,” said Lange, who is also president of the board of the California Clean Money campaign, a non-profit that supports public funding for political campaigns.

An October 2009 poll conducted by Lake Research Partners found that 63 percent of voters support the measure and only 22 percent oppose Proposition 15. Currently, no formal opposition committee has been formed. However, the Institute of Governmental Advocates—an association of lobbyists in California—filed a lawsuit against Proposition 15 in August 2009, arguing that the proposition violates the First Amendment, the same argument that is the basis of freedom of speech and right to petition their government. A California Superior Court judge ruled in November that the plaintiffs cannot pursue their lawsuit until the proposition is passed. The Institute of Governmental Advocates appealed this decision to California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal.

At Saturday’s kick-off party people exchanged ideas about what would constitute a truly fair and clean election.  After speeches by Hancock, Assemblymembers Nancy Skinner and Sandre Swanson, and retired State Senator Liz Figueroa, as well as a Q & A session, attendees formed a group and discussed how they can introduce Proposition 15 to their community.

“Politicians shouldn’t be controlled by the pocket of big corporations,” said Joseph Cohen, a 75-year old Emeryville resident who was at the campaign kick-off.

Diane Hall, a schoolteacher at Montalvin Manor Elementary School in West Contra Costa Unified District, agreed. “With the Supreme Court decision, we are in the shade. This is the time the voices of progressives should be heard,” she said.

Similar measures have been adopted in Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont and Massachusetts. Californian voters will decide if they will adopt this measure on the June 8th ballot.

Image: State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, State Senator Loni Hancock, former State Senator Liz Figueroa and State Assemblyman Sandre Swanson discussing public funding for California elections at a Feb. 6 event at Oakland’s City Hall. Photo by John Grennan


  1. lou del pozzo on March 22, 2010 at 10:12 am

    It’s pretty obvious who owns our legislators. With over $200,000,000 spent by insurance companies opposing health insurance modification, I think it’s time we let candidates know that if they are downed by big money interests, we won’t vote for them. I hope that part of Prop 15 will be an indication on the general election ballot that the candidate has not accepted private money.

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