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LA’s Campaign Finance Reform: Does the Little Guy Still Have a Chance?

THE UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD - The Ethics Commission is currently considering changes to the City of Los Angeles’ Campaign Finance Laws.  One proposal is to more than double each donor’s maximum contribution amounts.  For City Council races, the limit would  increase from the current $500 to $1100 per donor, for citywide races, such as for Mayor or Controller, it would go from $1000 to $2200. Contributions and maximum account levels would similarly double for Officeholder Accounts which incumbents use for “outreach” to constituents.  

Those supporting the changes suggest that the limits need to be increased because they haven’t been adjusted for inflation since they were imposed in 1985.  Others counter that conflicting provisions in the City Charter make it unclear whether this adjustment is mandatory.  That’s really a question for the lawyers to decide.  But citizens should ask an even more important question:  If the limits are increased, will incumbents and the well connected have an even greater advantage over challengers who don’t have a network of big donors?

The answer to that question is most likely, “Yes”.  Here’s why.  Those with contacts to a network of wealthy donors can more easily raise funds as each of these donors are more likely to be able to contribute the maximum amount.  They need fewer “high contribution” donations to amass a war chest for their campaign.  

Incumbents and the politically connected are more likely to have connections to these wealthier contributors or have network of donors in place long before the fundraising season begins.  Grassroots candidates must count on contributions from the community at large, a group less able to contribute the maximum allowed.  

The little guy has to find more small level donors to match just one high level donor.  He has to spend more time and effort fundraising than his well connected counterpart.  This puts him at a serious disadvantage and the higher the contribution limit, the larger the disadvantage he faces.

This is also true when it comes to raising the contribution and maximum contributions for Officeholder Accounts.  While there are restrictions on the ways Officeholder Accounts may be used, the funds are often used for “outreach” to constituents.  

While this is a necessary function that officeholders engage in, the Accounts nonetheless provide a substantial advantage to an incumbent officeholder over any potential challengers in subsequent elections.   Incumbency already provides an uneven playing field.  We should not make it substantially worse by more than doubling the advantage that Officeholder Accounts provide.

Regardless of whether contribution limits are eventually raised, there are a few steps that could be taken to minimize the negative impact of any changes.  First, any changes should not take effect during the current election cycle, but rather take effect for subsequent elections.   Also, phasing in those increases over more than one election cycle would afford the opportunity to review an increase to see how it has affected an election and make any needed changes for subsequent elections.

Finally, the Ethics Commission should delay final decision on these matters until Neighborhood Councils have had a chance to review any specific proposed changes.  The Commission releases their proposals only days before a hearing. Under most circumstances, review of any proposed changes to the Campaign Finance Laws must first be undertaken by a committee and then recommendations sent to the full Neighborhood Council for approval.

The Committees of the Councils and the Councils themselves usually meet only once per month.  Therefore, since it is impossible for Neighborhood Councils to comment on proposed changes before they are released by the Commission, Neighborhood Councils cannot have enough time for to review the proposals under their regular timeframe.  This effectively shuts them out of the review process.  

Therefore, the Commission should not to take final action on any proposed Campaign Finance Law changes until Neighborhood Councils have had sufficient time to review those proposals, a process that would likely take at least one to two months from the time the proposals are released.

Changes to the Campaign Finance Law will undoubtedly have a far reaching effect on who represents the people of Los Angeles.  They must be made only after giving careful consideration to all those who might wish to compete for elected office and only after full input from the Neighborhood Councils.

(Jay Beeber is the Chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council.) –cw


Vol 10 Issue 20
Pub: Mar 9, 2012