Half-page newspaper ad: $500. Thirty-second TV spot: $560,000. Political influence through unlimited contributions: priceless.
It must seem confusing to most people: Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) backs campaign finance reform out of her concern for democracy. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, opposes it for exactly the same reason.
Coupal and Hancock take their policy stances amid a dispute nearly as old as the California political process itself—how can you limit the influence of big money in the California political process while protecting the freedom to speak out in favor of candidates and the initiatives they support? Coupal and others seek to untangle complex financing rules, while Hancock and her supporters want to encourage public financing of campaigns to give California's citizens their own "voice" with candidates.
California's debate over campaign finance has marked every era of California political history. In the 19th century, voters fought railroad companies' ties to California politicians. Today, twenty-first-century activists cry foul over the influence of insurance companies in the state's emerging health care policy debate.
Traditionally, donors associate personal and corporate liberty with their right to speak through campaign checks, but those groups and individuals who lack interest groups also seek representation.
Equating money with free speech unsettles Hancock, who says she sees firsthand the way money gives some political players more opportunity to be heard in the Legislature. "If money equals the ability to speak, then democracy is really threatened," she says.
Hancock says measures like her Assembly Bill 583, which legislates public financing of campaigns, might better balance the system. She says the bill "actually increases free speech." Since the people finance the campaigns, politicians will answer to them, she argues.
Tony Quinn, a former Fair Political Practices Commission member and current California Target Book co-editor, said money will always be a big part of California politics. "When you limit money at one source, it comes up in another," he says.
Quinn and Coupal favor better disclosure of who is giving the money via increased transparency laws, but offer different reasons why campaign finance reform appears to have failed. Coupal says the current system's convoluted rules discourage everyday citizens from banding together to fight local initiatives or run for office without the benefit of hired attorneys or expensive consultants.
"Expenditure limits have been unworkable," Coupal says. He believes that other restrictions on participation in the initiative and political process create further problems.
Quinn says current FPPC regulations can limit regulators' and citizens' ability to effectively track the influence of money on politics, in part because of "independent expenditure" campaigns designed to evade current state and federal campaign finance laws. These campaigns, in which donors unconnected to a candidate may indirectly support his or her campaign, actually result in more spending on behalf of a candidate, he adds.
Efforts to reform political campaigns must be careful not to "regulate one voice in free speech," Quinn says, noting several failed California campaign finance reform efforts attempting to do just that—including separate past California propositions targeting trade unions and corporations.