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San Diego Council Approves Cap On Campaign Contributions

The City Council today gave initial approval to caps on the amount of money political parties can give to candidates and causes in San Diego city elections, but left a loophole open for the election cycle that just started.

The lid for citywide campaigns, such as for mayor or city attorney, would be $20,000 if adopted June 18 on second reading and subsequently signed into law by Mayor Bob Filner. For district races, like for City Council, the cap limit would be $10,000.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald said the issue is very simple.

"We know that money controls politics,'' Emerald said. "This is, I think, a very reasonable effort to control money in politics so we do make it about the candidates and voters.''

San Diego's old $1,000 lid was struck down by a judge as too restrictive, so there were no limits on party giving for the 2012 elections.

The loophole for political parties is that the current no-limits situation will remain in effect until the new caps become law, which according to council President Todd Gloria would not be until July 20 at the earliest.

Since the new election cycle leading to the June 2014 primary started Monday, political parties will be able to — in the words of Councilman Scott Sherman — "dump a bunch of money'' on candidates who have already declared their intention to run for office.

Even-numbered City Council districts are up for election next year.

Among those who have thrown their hats into the ring are Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who hopes to switch from District 6 to District 2, and Chris Cate, the interim executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

Cate is seeking to succeed Zapf, who recused herself from voting on the issue. Newly installed Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who will also be up for re-election, took part in the vote.

Council members David Alvarez and Sherri Lightner said they wanted to make the limits take effect today so no candidate would gain an unfair advantage over the next six weeks. The City Attorney's Office, however, convinced the panel to have the new limits take effect in due course.

Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the city's Ethics Commission, told the council that the judge who struck down the old limit wanted San Diego to strike a balance between First Amendment rights and the desire to keep political interests from circumventing campaign rules.

According to UC Irvine professor Richard Hasen, an expert on campaign law, the $20,000/$10,000 caps would most likely withstand legal challenge, but not certainly.

Political parties would still be allowed to make independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, and conduct unlimited communications with members.

The vote to approve the caps was 7-1, with Sherman abstaining.

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