Commentary

11/14/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

The state of municipal campaign finance in California


(photo credit: Steve A. Johnson)

The League of Women Voters of Los Angeles hosted a discussion on the state of campaign finance in California on Wednesday, aptly scheduled on what would have been U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s 157th birthday. Justice Brandeis famously noted “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Despite the controversial $11 million anonymous donation funneled into California last year, California’s state campaign finance laws are among the strictest in the nation. Alternatively, the state of campaign finance at the local level is another matter entirely.

Municipal requirements are as varied as California’s landscape. Reporting triggers, length of fundraising windows, and e-filing rules often differ across local jurisdictional lines.The result? Residents in neighboring cities don’t necessarily have the same ability to hold local leaders accountable to public interest and not special interests.

Although state and federal policies garner the most attention, it’s actually the decisions made by local governments have the greatest impact on our daily lives. That’s why voters deserve to know who is spending money to exert influence on local elections and decision-makers.

Many argue that money simply doesn’t matter. But Bob Stern, the “godfather” of political reform in California, doesn’t buy the narrative that money isn't a corrupting influence on the political process.

“In my experience, 90 percent of money comes from people that want something,” said Stern, past President of the Center for Governmental Studies. Given that political donors often expect a return on their investment, Stern likened campaign contributions to “legalized bribery.”

He has three words for skeptics: “losers don’t legislate.”

But while the Political Reform Act of 1974, which governs campaign finance disclosure in California, imposed strict requirements at the state level, it gave municipalities the opportunity to experiment with stronger rules, which they have. Although the varied landscape of municipal requirements can be attributed to this, Bob Stern, a co-author of the landmark law, touted the benefits.

By allowing cities to become laboratories of campaign finance reform, innovative measures can be tried and tested before attempting to replicate at the state or federal level, which as we know isn’t easy. Stern pointed to interesting ordinances passed in the cities of Los Angeles and Pasadena as good examples and cited analyses of public financing models in other jurisdictions as the reason he, a former proponent, had cooled off on the idea.

Not only are municipal campaign finance requirements varied, accessing disclosed data isn’t always easy. No centralized electronic database of California’s municipal campaign finance data, like Cal-Access at the state level, yet exists.

California Forward’s analysis of the state of transparency in California published earlier this year found that online campaign finance tools that are now the norm at the state and federal level are almost entirely absent at the municipal level.

While people have grown accustomed to immediate access to just about anything with a few clicks of a mouse, campaign finance data is available online in only a fraction of California cities. The overwhelming majority of California cities continue to rely on paper-based campaign finance disclosure systems. In fact, less than 10 percent of California’s roughly 480 cities publicly disclose campaign finance and candidate filings online. 

As the birthplace of the Internet revolution, that’s just plain embarrassing. 

Strict campaign finance disclosure requirements won’t translate into greater accountability if the public can’t access the data being disclosed. Although campaign finance data should be searchable, timely, and easily accessible online by default, at a minimum, local governments should publish scanned pdfs online.

To make informed decisions at the ballot box, voters need to know who is funding who, and why. Comprehensive and easily accessible campaign finance data at all levels of government is key to limiting the corrupting influence of money on elections and policy-making and restoring the public’s trust. Californians deserve better access to campaign finance data being disclosed at the state and local level.

Categories: Democracy, Elections, Transparency

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