A California Model For Campaign Finance

In American politics, there's no money game bigger than the one played in California.

Our gubernatorial candidates can receive donations 10 times larger than the maximum legal donation to a candidate for president.

If only our governors were 10 times as good as our presidents.

The Center for Governmental Studies, whose president Bob Stern has been working on political reform and campaign finance in California for four decades, is determined to bring the state political money game under control.

The center recently released not a series of incremental proposals but something much better: a comprehensive plan for redesigning campaign finance in California.

This plan, in the form of a model law that the center says could be exported to other states, has many smaller pieces but if adopted would achieve for two big things.

The first would be to blunt the impact of big contributions from a few rich people. The second would be to increase the incentives for smaller, broader fundraising that could bring more people into the political process.

The result would be a new hybrid system of private fundraising and public financing.

Among the most interesting provisions of the model law:

-A new lower contribution limit of $2,500 per candidate per election.

That's the same as the federal limit, but 90 percent less than the current limit in the governor's race. Right now, a married couple that gives the $25,000 inidividual limit in the primary and general elections can give a candidate $100,000.

-A requirement that candidates raise significant amounts of money from a large number of small donors to qualify for public financing.

For example, a state assembly candidate would have to raise a total of $25,000 from a minimum of 750 California residents to qualify for public funds.

That would change politics, since Assembly races are low-key, non-competitive affairs in which many candidates don't talk to that many people in the course of a race.

After an initial payment, public financing would be based on a match of small donations between $5 and $100. And that match would be on a four-to-one basis, in part to help small-donor-dependent candidates compete with wealthy self-financed candidates.

-Funding for the public financing program would come from the general fund and from a 10 percent surtax on civil and criminal penalties.

This model has worked in Arizona, providing financing so secure that the program has returned money to the general fund there.

-A ban on fundraising in off-year elections.

This would give lawmakers more time to focus on policy -- at least every other year.

The goal also is to prevent contributors from rewarding elected officials for access or particular legislation.

There is a long history of a contribution following a particular vote or legislative action. That sort of thing would be illegal in an off-year.

You can read the model law here.

It will be interesting to see if the model law sparks any real change.

If it does, you can depend on one thing: legal challenges to such a law. Campaign finance reform almost always provokes litigation.

Here's hoping this law provokes conversation too. 

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