With the issue of divestiture and the Middle East peace resolution on last Tuesday night’s City Council agenda, the various campaign finance proposals never made it to table. Instead, these time-sensitive measures have become one of 16 items on the Council’s agenda when it resumes the meeting this Monday, 7 p.m. at the City Council Chambers.
Two of the three proposals come from the UC Berkeley chapter of Common Cause. Another is sponsored by Councilmember Dona Spring and was drafted and ratified by the Berkeley Party, a local political affiliation.
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If the council votes the proposals through, they will continue the process toward becoming law, possibly in time to affect November’s mayoral election.
One of Common Cause’s proposals asks for full public financing of elections, while the other asks for public matching funds. Spring’s plan similarly asks for matching funds, but differs in its functions.
Full public financing, which would completely prevent private campaign contributions, is pretty much dead in the water. Obstacles to full public financing include both the expense to the city and the fact that the Supreme Court has determined that full public financing violates the constitutional right to free speech.
“Since the Supreme Court made the screwy decision that contributing money is a form of free speech, we can’t do anything with that until it’s changed,” said Spring. When asked how that argument could be contended, Spring argued that campaign contributions violate citizens’ rights to equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, because those who don’t contribute tend to be underrepresented. “Besides,” she says, “there just isn’t enough money [in the city budget] to finance that right now.” A point Mayor Shirley Dean wondered as well.
Dean said she couldn’t speak on the specifics of recent campaign finance proposals because she has yet to see them all, but wonders where the money for any public financing, including matching funds, would come from. “Where are the funds going to come from?” she asked. “I have only seen Spring’s plan, and there is no indication [in it] of where the funds will come from. This is extraordinary because [the proposals] haven’t gone to the Fair Campaign Practices Commission, nor have they been shared yet with the council. There’s been no discussion or release so far of details – this is not the way to get a proposal passed.”
Funds would presumably come from the city’s budget, which is facing a shortfall this year. “Until I see the details, it’s hard to talk about it, but it sounds like an administrative nightmare,” said Dean.
Prasanna Rasiah, spokesperson for the Fair Campaign Practices, confirmed that the commission hasn’t seen anything yet. “Our mission is basically to administer the BERA. It is up to the council to decide who to refer [any reform proposal] to for review,” he said.
The Spring plan asks candidates to voluntarily limit both their campaign spending and the maximum amount that an individual can contribute in exchange for matching funds. While those limits aren’t yet established, one example shows a maximum campaign expenditure of $150,000, with 50% coming from the city through matching funds. Individuals could only contribute $100, and a candidate would first have to raise $5,000 to establish themselves as a viable candidate.
Under the Berkeley Election Reform Act, campaign contributions are currently limited to $250 for Berkeley elections, and can only come from individuals. Corporations, unions, and organizations such as non-profits are not allowed to contribute.
“Our proposal is patterned after many similar ones that have passed in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach,” Spring said. “And are designed to make races more competitive at the local level.”
The matching fund proposal offered by UC Berkeley Common Cause is even more innovative than those offered so far. It works to match funds on a sliding scale dependent on how much is contributed. The less one contributes, the more the city would contribute to equalize that contribution with a higher one, often doubling or tripling the donation.
“Ratios of matching funds will differ according to the amount of money, and we’ve designed it so lower funds will get more money,” says UC Common Cause member Jody Schnell. She says donations of $10, for example, may be matched with $20 or $30, while a donation of $100 wouldn’t receive more than an equal match. “The point is to encourage more people to participate in the process,” she says.
Common Cause will continue to work for campaign finance reform regardless of what happens Monday. Their proposals were written purely by students, who have been meeting with various city council members. “We don’t want our proposal to cater to any faction of the council. Our goal is to meet with as many councilmembers as possible,” Schnell said.