City limits

Give lots of money and get lots of influence.

Nobody in 2003 can doubt this has become the basic equation of politics. But it seems especially egregious at the local level, where community, neighborhood and citizen groups should get keen attention from politicians—not just the developers, unions and business interests who have deep pockets during campaign season.

Well, Sacramento citizens instructed city officials long ago to do something about getting big money out of local politics. And now finally—after many false starts and stops in the past 10 years—the city has come close to making it happen with an ordinance for public financing of council campaigns.

Despite a natural fear of getting rid of a system that allowed them into office, a majority of members of the Sacramento City Council approved an ordinance last month that will go a long way toward reform. If Sacramento goes through with public financing, it will join four other forward-thinking cities in the state—Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and San Francisco—who now finance campaigns this way.

But there’s a catch; councilmembers gave themselves an escape clause. They might retract the law, they say, if the state budget crisis affects Sacramento even more negatively than the now-predicted $7 million hit would. But not passing the law now would halt a much-needed reform.

Let’s review how public financing works: To qualify for public funds, a candidate has to raise $5,000 first, thereby proving he or she is a viable candidate. Once that threshold is reached, and as long as the candidate signs a voluntary agreement not to exceed spending caps, the city promises to match every dollar raised by the candidate with public funds, up to $250 per contribution. In trade, the candidate agrees not to raise more than $75,000 total. If a candidate’s opponent declines the voluntary agreement to use public monies and raises more than $75,000, the original candidate can go ahead and raise more while keeping the public funds. Because the courts have tended to rule against strict limits in elections, the public-financing concept has swept the nation as a solution that stands on sound constitutional ground. Because public financing has been more effective in council races than in mayor’s races, the mayor’s seat would not be subject to the new ordinance.

Ultimately, no candidate could receive more than $30,000 in public money. In other words, if there are 10 candidates in the next race for city council, the taxpayers would spend a maximum of $300,000.

Now we know that sounds like a lot of money, but taxpayers actually would reap a lot of benefits from that $300,000 investment, especially if you look at it in the context of a $300 million city budget. We agree wholeheartedly with the activists at Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. They say the cost of public financing is a small price to pay for the great benefits the community would accrue for removing special-interest influence from local politics.

We urge councilmembers to hold fast to the ordinance no matter what happens to the state budget and allow this important reform to finally be accomplished for the good of Sacramento.