Prop. 15, the experiment

Proposition 15 offers a pilot program in public financing

The opposition to Proposition 15 is led by the state’s lobbying industry.

The opposition to Proposition 15 is led by the state’s lobbying industry.

illustration by mark stivers

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The way state Sen. Loni Hancock figures it, “If the people don’t own their government, the special interests will.”

She heard it first from Bill Moyers, or maybe it was Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton. Either way, Hancock says that’s the best argument for Proposition 15, the ballot measure Hancock authored to begin a modest experiment in the public financing of California elections.

“I think democracy is at risk when the solid majority of people think that the government is being run for the benefit of a few big interests, and not for them,” Hancock says, adding that “This measure will allow the people of California to own their government.”

More specifically, Prop. 15 introduces a pilot program of public financing of elections, specifically for the office of the secretary of state, and just for the years 2014 and 2018.

Instead of raising money from big donors, business groups, unions and other special interests, candidates who qualify will be given enough money to run their campaigns from a special elections fund—up to $1 million for each qualifying candidate in primary elections, and up to $1.3 million in the general election.

The idea is that candidates can spend much less time fundraising, and more time governing and listening to constituents. And the measure aims to reduce the political influence of big donors.

The ballot measure as written would fund these elections with new fees on registered lobbyists. But Richard Wiebe, chairman for the “Stop Prop 15” campaign, says the measure is really a “back door tax” that will actually “allow fringe candidates from the left or the right to qualify for hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds.”

Prop. 15 is a very scaled-down version of similar programs in states like Arizona, Maine and Connecticut. Other states like New Mexico and North Carolina are also trying out small public-financing programs.

Here’s how it works. In order to qualify for public campaign funds, candidates have six months to gather 7,500 small contributions of $5.

The amount of public funding and the contribution requirement varies a bit depending on whether it’s a primary or general election, and whether the candidate is major-party candidate (Democrat or Republican) or a third-party candidate, like a Green or Libertarian, or an independent.

In exchange for public financing, participating candidates must agree to do no additional fundraising. The program would also give up to $5 million in matching funds to candidates who are targeted by independent expenditure committees, or whose opponents decline public financing.

Backers estimate the program to cost $6 million to $7 million per election. The money would come from raising fees on registered lobbyists.

The current fee on lobbyists registered in California is $12.50 per year. The new fee would be $350 a year. That sounds steep, but backers of the measure say Texas lobbyists have to cough up $500 a year; in Massachusetts, it costs $1,000 a year to register as a lobbyist.

California has long flirted with public financing. Back in 1988, voters passed Proposition 68, which introduced public financing for elections. But on the same ballot, voters also supported Proposition 73, which set campaign-contribution limits, but specifically banned public-financing schemes.

The courts later made exceptions for charter cities, like Sacramento and Los Angeles. These cities have experimented with public financing with mixed success (see “Money for nothing”; SN&R Frontlines; February 21, 2008).

There have been unsuccessful attempts to lift the ban since then, most notably Proposition 89, sponsored by the California Nurses Association in 2006, which would have introduced public financing for all statewide offices. It was defeated 74 to 26 percent at the polls.

While still in the state Assembly, Hancock decided to push a much more limited program—focused just on upcoming elections for the California secretary of state. That office, being the person who ensures the integrity of California elections, seemed an appropriate place to start.

The pilot program got barely enough votes in the Legislature to make it onto the ballot. The biggest financial backer is the California Nurses Association, which gave $100,000. But according to campaign backers, the measure boasts 2,000 individual contributors. And of the majority of those reported on the secretary of state’s campaign website, $100 is the most common contribution.

The contributors list for the Stop Prop 15 campaign is considerably shorter, though the amounts are typically larger. Most of the contributors are lobbyists or trade associations. The Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association gave $10,000, as did the California New Car Dealers Association. The California Chamber of Commerce gave $20,000. Other contributors include the California League of Food Processors ($3,000), the California Beer and Beverage Distributors ($5,000) and the California Farm Bureau Federation ($5,000). All told, the “no” side has raised about $170,000 so far.

The “no” campaign is being run by Schubert Flint Public Affairs, the same firm that got the controversial Proposition 8—which took away marriage-equality rights from California gays and lesbians—passed in 2008.

“Proposition 15 is nothing more than a bait-and-switch,” says Schubert Flint lobbyist Richard Wiebe. The bait, says Wiebe, is the modest pilot program. But he says the proposition really opens the door to a vast system of public financing that would drain the state’s already devastated budget.

“Ask any one of them over there [in the Capitol] what their least favorite job is. They’ll tell you it is fundraising,” Wiebe says, adding that if given the opportunity, state lawmakers would be eager to set up a widespread public-financing system.

But that seems to be contradicted by the fact that Proposition 15 just squeaked through the Legislature.

And as for legislators wanting to shed the burden of fundraising, Prop. 15 backers say that’s just the point.

“The reason we have such a serious budget crisis is because they spend far too much time fundraising,” says Trent Lange, chairman of the Yes on Proposition 15 campaign.

In the fall, the Institute of Governmental Advocates, a lobbying group for lobbyists, tried and failed in court to block Prop. 15 from the ballot, arguing that the fee was an unconstitutional tax on its members.

Opponents say there’s a good chance that the courts will later throw out Proposition 15’s main financing mechanism—the fee on lobbyists—because it’s an unfair tax.

Then, opponents say, the public would be on the hook to fund the program in some other way, and the Legislature would use money from the state’s general fund to do it.

But that’s not what Proposition 15 says. More likely, backers say, the program would simply go unfunded.

“Worst-case scenario, nothing happens at the state level, but the locals would be freed up to pursue their own programs. No harm done,” says Derek Cressman, with California Common Cause, one of the main backers of the measure.

Prop. 15’s backers do acknowledge that they’d like to see the program expand some day. Hancock says that to institute public financing for all statewide and legislative offices would cost about $6 per adult Californian per year. “That’s the cost of a muffin and a cup of coffee. For that, you can own your government. So, is it worth the cost?”