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Prop 15 Would Take A First Step Toward Publicly-Funded Elections

— A June ballot measure would take a first step toward publicly-funded elections. Proposition 15 would provide money to cover campaigns for one office -- Secretary of State. It's an experiment in getting big money out of politics.

At the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles this spring, State Senator Loni Hancock worked the halls to urge delegates to support Proposition 15. The ballot measure started out as a bill that Hancock sponsored years ago when she was first elected to the legislature.

"The enormous influence of special interest money defines so much of what is possible and what is not possible in Sacramento," said Hancock.

Hancock said when legislators depend on special interest groups for campaign cash they fear that if they vote against those interests, the money will dry up. Lobbyists make their presence felt by staking out the entrance to the legislative chambers before key votes.

"One time we had a caucus because the new members were saying they were afraid," said Handock. "Walking into the chambers was like running the gauntlet, they said, because you'd have people wanting to talk to you, grabbing your arm, that kind of thing."

Proposition 15 aims to free candidates for Secretary of State from that lobbying pressure. It would create a fund by hiking lobbyist registration fees from $25 up to $700. That money, an estimated $6 million over four years, would pay each candidate up to a million dollars for the primary election and slightly more for the general election.

"We know that candidates have to raise money to run for office," said Tracy Westen with the Center for Governmental Studies. "That's clear. The question is where the money comes from."

Westen said in states with publicly financed elections, more candidates run for office, and they spend less money on the campaign, and less time dialing for dollars once elected. Westen says a Common Cause study found that in nearly every Assembly race in California, the richer candidate wins. He said a pilot program for Secretary of State -- the official who oversees California's elections -- is a good place to try to reduce the power of special interests.

I think there is a serious problem both in reality and in perception. People who don't contribute to candidates don't get much of their attention when they're elected," said Westen.

Westen thinks public financing would make California politicians more responsive to constituents rather than funders. The Center for Governmental Studies hasn't endorsed Prop 15 but it backed a similar measure two decades ago. That measure lost out to another proposition that banned public financing of state and local elections. Richard Weibe, who runs the "No on Prop 15" campaign -- said Proposition 15 goes against what voters want.

"Prop 15 repeals the ban on the public financing of campaigns that voters themselves enacted 22 years ago," said Weibe. "Not just for the Secretary of State's race, but for any race in the state from city counsel to governor.

Weibe says if the authors of prop 15 just wanted a pilot project they should have written it more narrowly. And, he said, the measure threatens to deepen California's deficit. That's because it would allow legislators to tap other state money to pay for elections if they expand the program in the future.

"The proponents of Proposition 15 have done a great job in portraying this as an innocent pilot project that only lobbyists are going to pay for," said Weibe. "But as we have learned so many times before with initiative politics, you have to look at the actual language of prop 15 to see what it really does."

But ballot language alone doesn't mean California's legislature could easily increase spending on elections. The legislature could vote to provide public financing for more state offices. But in order to pay for that, they would need to approve new funding by a two-thirds majority vote.