Campaigns and cat houses

On April 16, the Sacramento City Council is likely to gut many of the city’s hard-won campaign-finance laws. On the chopping block are rules limiting contributions by unaccountable “independent expenditure” committees as well as a program that gives public matching funds to candidates who agree to spending limits, intended to create more competitive elections.

The whole thing dates back to the fall election, when the city decided it couldn’t enforce limits on IEs—campaign committees that aren’t controlled by candidates, and which can hide where most of their money comes from—because of lawsuits filed against similar laws in Oakland and San Jose.

Said City Councilman Steve Cohn, “We’ve been advised by our city attorney that we cannot enforce the ordinance.”

But watchdog groups say it’s too soon to throw out the rules. Rather they should be suspended until the dust settles on the legal front. “But eliminating limitations on expenditure committees has some harsh policy results,” said Common Cause associate director JoAnn Fuller. “It’s hard for the public to understand who’s behind [IEs], and it encourages negative campaigning.”

Don’t believe her? Remember the “No Way K.J.” mailers from the local plumbers union that everybody got so worked up about? The ones that drilled down on allegations of sexual misconduct against Kevin Johnson, and ended up hurting Heather Fargo just as much as K.J.? Those were produced by an IE. That’s why there are rules limiting them, at least for now.

Since the rules governing independent expenditures may be going out the window, the council figures it might be a good time to loosen the regulations on candidate committees, too. For example, an individual can now give $1,150 to a mayoral candidate during one election cycle; under the proposed rules, they’d be able to give $4,000. Political-action committees can now give $5,850; that would shoot up to $10,000 for mayoral races.

The council is also poised to eliminate the promising but woefully underutilized public financing program. It gives public matching funds to candidates who can’t (or won’t) pimp themselves out to developers and unions and other special interests to get elected.

“The public financing was looked at because there is no money in the general fund,” said Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy at last week’s council meeting.

But don’t be fooled.

The public financing kitty has about $300,000 dollars in it. It’s the same $300,000 that has been sitting there for the last five years. It just stays there because it has barely been used—because the council has written the rules in such a way that it’s really difficult for challengers to take advantage (see “Money for nothing”; February 21, 2008).

What else could the city spend that $300,000 on? It’s got to be something good in these tough budget times, right? So how about … kitty condos?

Last summer, when the depth of Sacramento’s budgetary quagmire had become fully apparent, the city council agreed to spend $300,000 to build a new “cattery” for 60 homeless cats at the Front Street animal shelter. Sheedy was an enthusiastic supporter. She even had a picture of her own cat, a shelter adoptee named “Mr. McCool,” projected onto the wall of the council chambers to support her argument for funding.

By all accounts, the new digs help keep the little critters healthier. But is there anybody on this council who thinks that a healthy democracy is worth the same investment?

Councilman Rob Fong, break it down.

“We just had a mayor’s race where more money was raised and spent than in the history of Sacramento,” Fong noted at last week’s council meeting. “Four council members, myself included, were re-elected without any opposition. We need to ask ourselves if that’s what we really want. Do we want to make it feasible for more people to run for office? Or do we want to erect barriers?”