Squeaky-clean politics?

The Clean Money initiative gives public funding to candidates who don’t accept private contributions, but opponents say it’s the wrong answer to California’s election woes

Photo Illustration by Don Button

To learn more about the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights, visit www.consumerwatchdog.org.

Does the answer to California’s lobbying and fund-raising scandals lie in an initiative that just qualified for the November ballot? And even if the answer is yes, will the forces of pay-to-play politics kill it?

Proposition 89 was written by the California Nurses Association to level the political playing field. It strives to establish a publicly financed election system and close loopholes that have doomed previous attempts at statewide campaign-finance reform.

The proposition, also known as the California Nurses Clean Money and Fair Elections Act, gives full public funding to candidates who agree not to accept any private contributions. Candidates could receive additional funds of up to five times the original amount of Clean Money funding to match so-called “independent expenditures” to fund ads for or against a candidate made independently of a candidate’s election campaign.

The initiative, which is based on systems in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, already has the support of the League of Women Voters of California, California Common Cause, the nonpartisan Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, the California Clean Money Campaign and Public Campaign. It also has the support of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, who recently announced that he’s backing the measure despite its opposition from one of his main benefactors, the California Teachers Association.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opposes the measure, saying it would increase taxes.

“If Prop. 89 passes, a campaign becomes a debate of ideas, not fund-raising tactics, and the field opens to a more diverse range of candidates, including women, people of color and the working class,” FTCR head Jamie Court said.

“Average people will be back in the running,” claimed Court, noting that a state senator in Nevada is also a casino waitress. “If firemen, nurses and waitresses were in public office, we’d see and hear very different kinds of discussions.”

Court is equally excited about what he calls “the sexy underbelly of Prop. 89”—namely a set of restrictions on contributions from corporations, unions and private individuals to candidates and committees and also on corporate contributions to ballot measures.

But the measure is already drawing criticism from pay-to-play powerhouses on the left and right: labor unions and the California Chamber of Commerce. Ballot arguments by chamber boss Allan Zaremberg and others slam a “single special interest group, the California Nurses Association, that wants an unfair advantage in California elections, while small businesses and individuals are effectively shut out.”

But while the chamber’s anti-Prop. 89 ballot arguments make the claim that “a gubernatorial candidate could qualify for $200 million of taxpayer money,” Prop. 89 wouldn’t be funded by individual taxpayers or the state’s general fund, but through a 20-cent corporate tax increase for every $100 of profit. The chamber’s ballot arguments also claim that “even labor unions like those representing teachers, firefighters and law enforcement do not support Prop. 89 because it restricts their participation.”

CTA spokesman Mike Myslinski confirmed that the CTA was opposing Prop. 89.

“It’s poorly crafted and full of unintended consequences,” Myslinski said. “Experts believe it could give more power to corporations while limiting the unions’ participation in politics.”

Acknowledging that the idea of public funding for politics deserves to be debated, Myslinski said, “Legal experts believe that the initiative’s restrictions on corporations are illegal and could be thrown out, leaving the unions with the restrictions.”

And with CTA representing 335,000 educators, Myslinski fears Prop. 89 could “unfairly limit our voices on critical issues.”

But CNA member Jan Rodolfo, a registered nurse in the cancer ward at Oakland’s Summit Medical Center, told us, “Unions that believe their power comes from making financial contributions end up tainted by and accommodating the system. What’s been done up until now hasn’t worked.”

Rodolfo admitted that the CNA was inspired to author Prop. 89 after spending a year “following Arnold Schwarzenegger around and trying to put out fires when the governor attempted to implement an emergency freeze on staff-patient ratios.” She also acknowledged that there’s no limit on how much individuals can give to ballot measures, since such restrictions would violate the First Amendment.

Meanwhile, Court hopes “a few angels will recognize that Prop. 89 is the recall of politics as usual.”

“Whatever your issue is, be it universal health care, global warming or lower gas prices, Prop. 89 will get the dollars out of the process,” said Court, who claims IE committees are “the silent threat and the reason why oil companies have not been reined in on price gouging.”

“The HMOs, the auto insurers, the oil companies, these are the groups legislators worry about, fearing that if they anger them, a massive IE committee will be launched against them,” Court said. “But if California, the [world’s] fifth-largest economy, adopts this system, the next stop will be the Potomac.”