While other ballot measures may be getting more attention, two others, pertaining to the political process, campaigns and elections, deserve voters’ consideration.
Neither merits voters’ support, however.
Initiative 1464’s main provision would establish a public financing system for state legislative races, with the possibility of expansion to other state offices, judicial races and eventually federal races. The state law that bars the use of state funds for political campaigns would be repealed.
Registered voters who wish to participate would receive three $50 “democracy credits,” which could be donated to eligible political campaigns of their choice, for example donating to candidates in each of the three race in a voter’s legislative district.
To be eligible for the $50 donations, candidates would have to meet a few conditions: Candidates would have to collect at least 75 private contributions of at least $10; not ask for or accept private donations that exceed the maximum limit for the office sought; not spend more than $5,000 of their own money on their campaign; and limit their campaign spending to $150,000 for state House races and $250,000 for state Senate races. And candidates couldn’t keep surplus democracy credits for a future campaign.
The program would be funded by repealing the nonresident sales tax exemption; nonresidents instead would pay the same sales tax as residents. A fiscal note prepared by the state Office of Financial Management estimated that it its first six years, repeal of the exemption would generate about $173 million, of which $165 million would go to support the public financing program.
And there’s the biggest argument against I-1464: With the state needing to identify an estimated $3.5 billion in revenue in the next biennium to fund K-12 education, the repeal of that sales tax exemption should first go to that need and not to fund the purchase of yard signs for legislative candidates.
Unfortunately, saying no to I-1464’s public financing of campaigns also means saying no to other provisions that would bring needed reforms to campaign finance and political lobbying laws.
The initiative would restrict former state and local officials from being paid to lobby their former offices for three years. Likewise, lobbying firms would be limited in their ability to hire former state and local officials, baring them from lobbying on an issue in which the former officials had any decision-making role.
Penalties for violating campaign finance laws would be increased, with half of the revenue from the fines going to the state’s underfunded Public Disclosure Commission and half to the state general treasury.
And it would increase the transparency of donations to campaigns by requiring the identification of the top five contributors in political advertising. And if a political action committee were among those top five contributors, it would have to identify the top five donors to the PAC.
Those are reforms that deserve more consideration and either their own initiative or a bill in the Legislature.
Initiative 735, meanwhile, would urge the state’s Congressional delegation to join several other states in proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would hold that constitutional rights belong only to individuals and not corporations. The amendment would, in effect, repeal the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Since the ruling, overturning Citizens United has become shorthand for getting corporate money out of politics. But a constitutional amendment might not accomplish that goal and instead could infringe on the free speech rights of individuals. I-735, along with targeting corporations also suggests curtailing the speech of labor unions and nonprofit organizations as diverse as the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association and the National Abortion Rights Action League.
In a recent column, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders, writing about a California measure similar to I-735, recalled the issues behind Citizens United.
Citizens United was a conservative group that had produced a 90-minute documentary called, “Hillary: The Movie.” The Federal Elections Committee, under the provisions of the McCain-Feingold ban on “electioneering communications” barred the airing of the documentary on a pay-per-view channel within 30 days of a presidential primary in 2008. The Supreme Court overturned McCain-Feingold.
In truth, a constitutional amendment to defeat Citizens United is more likely to chill political speech than remove money from politics.
Rather than a constitutional amendment, a more targeted approach would be for Congress to consider campaign finance and transparency laws — avoiding silly limits on when documentaries can air — and instead adopt laws similar to those outlined in I-1464.