An Attempt to Get Public Financing of Campaigns Through the Back Door

Sen. Ben Allen’s SB 1107 wants to allow public funding of campaigns, something voters prohibited years ago. A long time acquaintance of mine, David Keating who now runs the Center for Competitive Politics in Washington, D.C. had an opinion piece in yesterday’s Orange County Register blasting the attempt by Sen. Allen to overturn a vote of the people with what Keating says is an unconstitutional bill. The voters outlawed public financing of campaigns with Proposition 73 in 1988. As someone who signed the ballot argument in favor of Proposition 73, I agree with Keating’s assessment. If legislators want public financing, legislators can’t do it on their own—they have to ask the voters.

Allen and supporters of SB 1107 claim that they are following the rules of the proposition that allow for legislative changes that “further the purposes” of the initiative. However, as Keating argues in his piece, “How can a bill “further [the] purpose” of the law banning tax-funded campaigns by allowing for tax-financed campaigns? The answer is: It can’t.”

Senator Ben Allen believes that public financing of campaigns will eliminate the role of special interests in the election process.

As Keating rightly points out, the California Constitution only allows a vote of the people to amend a previous initiative passed by the voters.

The public financing piece of Proposition 73 was a critical distinction between that effort to reform the Political Reform Act and a like measure that appeared on the same ballot. Proposition 68 would have allowed public financing in certain circumstances. The voters said yes to both measures but they were stronger for the proposition that carried the public financing ban. Proposition 73 received 58% of the vote; Proposition 68 got 52%. The law governing initiatives allowed for the initiative with the higher vote total to take effect.

In the ballot argument I signed along with Dan Stanford, former chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, we stated that the measure “flatly prohibited candidates’ use of any tax money in order to campaign for office.”

We added:

Keeping government spending under control is hard enough. Imagine how much harder it will be to keep politicians from spending more tax money on the most important thing in their lives—getting elected and re-elected.

I admit over the years I have wondered if the political contribution limits detailed in Prop 73 are the best way to further the democratic process. The argument for no limits and immediate reporting has appeal.

I have also considered if public funding on a major scale would ever take hold. Critics who see dominant interests controlling elections argue that public funding is the only solution to eliminate all interests. Some have wondered if business, frustrated with the dominance of labor unions in Sacramento, would ever consider supporting the public financing option?

The problem is these arguments run afoul of the First Amendment and the right to speak on crucial issues. Likewise, the argument we made in the ballot booklet 28 years ago is still valid: public spending would grow for campaigns at the expense of services funded by the state budget.

Regardless of any academic debate on public financing, one thing is clear—if the legislature wants public financing they can’t do it by legislative fiat, they have to go to the voters.

About the Author: Joel Fox is Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee. This article originally appeared in Fox & Hounds and appears here with permission.

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