There might well be a serious argument to be made that public financing of political campaigns would be an improvement over today’s big contributor-driven system. Too bad Proposition 89 is not it.
This convoluted, 55-page initiative was moved onto the ballot by the California Nurses Association and a trial lawyer front group. It would be a pipe dream for political reform and a veritable fountainhead of unintended consequences.
Presumably, the nurses are sincerely well-intentioned in their statements that large-scale healthcare reform (no doubt eventually including mandatory nurse-patient ratios and universal health insurance) would be impossible unless the playing field is somehow leveled in a way that neutralizes the advantages of big-money insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital interests.
However, the Prop. 89 organizers wrote the contribution restrictions so restrictively that many other major public employee unions —representing teachers, firefighters, janitors and laborers — have joined the more predictable line-up of business associations and taxpayer advocates in opposition.
Significant problems exist in almost every aspect of Prop. 89. To qualify for public funding, statewide candidates would need to raise a specific number of signed $5 contributions — 750 for assembly member, 25,000 for governor — and turn them in to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
Unfortunately, the proposition does not specify whether the $5 givers need to be registered voters, eligible voters over 18 or simply legal California residents. And the Fair Political Practices Commission simply does not have the voter lists or any other mechanism for verifying information on thousands of separate sheets of paper.
Prop. 89 would be funded by a 0.2 percent state income tax increase on corporations and financial institutions. As the California Chamber of Commerce is quick to point out, this tax would be leveled equally against hard-pressed small businesses as well as large corporations.
Perhaps the most controversial element of Prop. 89 is the very small limits it places on single contributions, $500 to $1,000 per candidate and a special corporations-only limit of $10,000 on ballot measures. Comparably low limits in Vermont were struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court this June.
In practice, these restrictions would simply lead to the quick invention of a new arsenal of loopholes. One obvious work-around would be to form a large number of similar committees, each one distributing the maximum legal amount of campaign contributions.
Prop. 89 does not block wealthy candidates from financing their own campaigns, nor does it bar candidates from spending taxpayer money on a barrage of attack ads. Genuine political reform in California could best be fought by ending the two-party gerrymandering of “safe” election districts. Under today’s troubled system, the primary beneficiaries of public campaign financing would be incumbent candidates who don’t need it.