The San Francisco Ethics Commission decided Friday not to
propose rules that would have in effect abolished spending
caps for local campaigns.
The proposal from Ethics staff generated considerable
opposition, including a petition from the California Clean
Money Campaign. Reporters were told to expect "fireworks"
at the meeting.
But it became clear early in the discussion that the
commissioners were not interested in the staff plan, and
after a relatively short debate they rejected it.
The details are a bit complicated. Under current rules,
candidates who raise a modest amount of money from local
donation get a public "match" -- at the ratio of 2-1. That
means if a candidate raises $25,000, the city gives them
$50,000. The idea is to encourage candidates to seek small
In exchange, candidates who seek matching funds have to
agree to a spending limit -- $975,000 for candidates for
mayor, and $155,000 for candidates for supervisor.
But the rise of massive dark-money independent-expenditure
campaigns have made those limits difficult for grassroots
candidates. If a candidate for supervisor agrees to the
limits and accepts public funding, and their opponent also
agrees -- but benefits from $1 million in IE money -- the
grassroots candidate is at a huge disadvantage.
So the current rules allow an increase in the spending cap
when one candidate gets IE support. The way it works: Every
time an IE reports spending to support a candidate, or
oppose another candidate, the remaining candidates in the
race are allowed to increase their allowable spending.
Right now, the increases in the spending cap go up in
$10,000 increments. That means candidates often get
notifications from the Ethics Commission every day with
news that the cap has again been raised.
The Ethics staff, responding to complaints from some
campaign managers who say the constant changes are
confusing, suggested that once one candidate breaks the
cap, the cap should be completely abolished for all
That, opponents said, would eviscerate the expenditure
limits that public financing matching funds candidates
currently must follow by completely removing the limits the
moment a candidate??â"¢s ceiling is exceeded "by
From the Clean Money petition:
This proposal goes against everything public financing of
campaigns stands for. One of the key reasons for the
matching funds system is because it places limits on the
amount of private money that participating candidates can
raise. Completely eliminating the ceiling at the first
moment independent expenditures even modestly breach them
would kill the ceiling in most competitive races, making
them nothing more than a speed bump for special
The compromise suggestion: Increase the increments to
$50,000 for supe races and $250,000 for mayoral races. But
keep the spending caps in place.
That's what the commission voted to do, unanimously.
The issue that is still lingering was brought up by Jon
Golinger, who was run a number of campaigns in the city and
is a political-reform advocate.
Golinger pointed out that the law contains a "catch-22": If
a candidate backed by big money gets, say, $1 million in IE
money, then other candidates manage to raise the money to
meet an increased spending limit, the corporate candidate
gets to spend more money, too.
That means it's in the interest of a corporate-backed
candidate to have big IE money backing them; it not only
releases their opponents from the limits. It also releases
The commission took no action on that.
The issue now moves to the Board of Supes, which can change
the increments again -- and could take up Golinger's