SACRAMENTO -- American politics will never be perfectly
clean because politicians represent and reflect imperfect
Yet voters unreasonably expect the people they elect to be,
on the whole, better than themselves.
It's actually more of a hope -- even a demand -- than an
expectation. Citizens have become accustomed to expect the
worst because of scandal after scandal.
In a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of
California, adults were asked whether they thought the
state government was "run by a few big interests looking
out for themselves" or was "run for the benefit of all of
No surprise: 67% answered "big interests." Only 31% replied
Although predictable, that's disappointing and sad.
Most politicians I've been around over the decades have
been relatively ethical -- just as most voters who elect
them are basically honest. Voters tend to elect people with
But there are always some rotten apples. That's nature.
It's also human nature -- certainly in America -- to strive
toward perfection even when we know that reaching that goal
is impossible, at least for more than a short period.
Therefore, legislation has been introduced in Sacramento
that could reduce the influence of special interest money
It would allow California governments -- the state,
counties and all cities -- to enact some form of public
financing of election campaigns.
Look, running for office costs barrels of money, especially
in California. The money must come from somewhere. And as
I've written many times, either the public buys the
politicians or the special interests eagerly will -- and
In California, some cities are allowed to set up public
financing systems but others, illogically, are not. Neither
are counties or the state.
Los Angeles city operates a public financing system. Public
funds match private contributions.
For every $1 up to a certain amount that a city resident
donates to a council or citywide candidate, taxpayers kick
in $6. But candidates receiving public funds must agree to
campaign spending limits.
L.A. spent roughly $12.8 million on matching funds for the
San Francisco has a similar system.
But Oakland has a different partial public funding method:
Each registered voter receives four $25 "Democracy Dollars"
they can donate to qualified city candidates.
Long Beach and Berkeley also have public funding
Those five entities are allowed to because they're
so-called charter cities. By an odd quirk, general law
cities -- there are 357 of them -- are not permitted to
enact public financing for campaigns.
That happened because of the 1974 Political Reform Act, a
ballot measure sponsored by young Secretary of State Jerry
Brown, who was running for governor on a post-Watergate
platform of "clean up Sacramento."
Brown's measure required more substantive public disclosure
of campaign contributions and spending. But he was afraid
opponents would attack it as a scheme to spend tax dollars
on politicians. So he wrote into the initiative the current
restriction on public financing.
"We were worried Republicans would say 'no to public
financing,' use that against us in the campaign and it
wouldn't pass," recalls Bob Stern, who helped Brown write
the act and is a longtime political reformer.
The measure passed overwhelmingly.
In 2016, the Legislature passed and then-Gov. Brown signed
a bill to remove the ban. But the courts ruled the question
must go to the voters because of the way Brown wrote the
That's what the current legislation would do -- send the
question back to the voters in November 2024.
Two identical bills -- SB--24 and AB--270 -- have been
introduced by veteran state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana)
and Assemblyman Alex Lee (D-San Jose).
Umberg says he's not particularly sold on public financing
but wants to allow local entities to experiment with it if
"I've been trying to figure out a way to reduce the
influence of money in politics," he says, "and I haven't
figured it out. I'd be interested in seeing what local
communities would do.
"States are called laboratories of democracy. Cities and
counties could be laboratories of addressing the influence
of money in politics."
Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), who authored the 2016
bill, says: "This is a 'let 1000 flowers bloom' issue."
"The cost of campaigns is increasingly out of control. It
puts so much power in the hands of the wealthy and special
interests. I don't see [public financing] as a magic
bullet. But it can make our campaigns cleaner."
In last year's elections, $311 million in private money was
raised for legislative and other state races.
Even if the public paid for it all, that would have
accounted for only roughly one-tenth of 1% of the state
budget. But no one is proposing that, although it's
undoubtedly a dream of Trent Lange, president of California
Clean Money Campaign, a reform group.
"Public financing of campaigns is the best investment
taxpayers can ever possibly make," Lange insists.
"Public financing is a great idea in the abstract, but I
don't know what difference it makes given that independent
expenditure committees are unlimited," says Loyola Law
School professor Jessica Levinson, former president of the
L.A. City Ethics Commission.
Independent expenditure committees operate separately from
candidates and have no spending limits. They're a
relatively new political parasite that can overwhelm
That's because of one of the silliest-ever decisions by the
U.S. Supreme Court: a 1976 ruling that money is speech and
thereby protected by the 1st Amendment in many political
situations. And all the time I'd thought that money was
But Levinson points to one plus for public financing.
"You probably get good candidates who otherwise wouldn't be
able to run," she says. "It gives them an early step
If any cities or counties want to try it, they at least
should not be barred by the state.