Public Comment

‘Clean Money’ Bill Lacks Major Element By KEITH WINNARD

Friday March 03, 2006

Now that Assemblymember Hancock’s “Fair Elections and Clean Money” legislation (AB 583) has passed the Assembly and is on its way to the Senate, it’s time to get beyond the supporters’ slogans and hype and discuss the actual contents of this bill. 

Up until two weeks before it passed the Assembly, AB 583 had two major components, each with profound impacts on how politics in Sacramento would be financed. 

The first major component of AB 583 was a simple but extremely effective change in the current law. It classified campaign contributions in excess of $500 as “income” for purposed of the Political Reform Act of 1974. As a result of this change, legislators could not vote on and the governor could not veto legislation that would affect their large contributors (i.e. their sources of income), eliminating any influence these donors might have on the legislative process. It cost the taxpayer nothing and I did not oppose it. However, one week before AB 583 was passed by the Assembly, it was amended and this component was deleted. It was independent and separable from this bill’s other provisions, and the only truly effective way of ending the “pay to play” politics in Sacramento that supporters of AB 583 oppose. 

The rest of this legislation establishes and elaborate and expensive taxpayer financed political campaign framework. Hancock estimates its administrative costs alone to be about $3 million a year. 

When fully funded, this framework could cost taxpayers dozens of millions of dollars each election for political propaganda generated by candidates qualifying for and accepting public financing. It is not clear why, when candidates for public office can create websites for only hundreds of dollars, campaign managers should be given the keys to the State Treasury and access to millions of dollars of taxpayer’s money to pay for political advertisements that may be misleading, deceptive, or completely false. 

Contrary to some of their supporters’ claims, AB 583 will not ensure a “level playing field” in political races. Nor will it limit political campaign spending in the aggregate. This is because it does not limit spending by candidates who choose to rely on private voluntary donations, as they do now, instead of publicly financed campaign funds. 

This bill creates the possibility of taxation without representation. For example, if none of the candidates running for Assemblymember Hancock’s seat take tax-subsidies, for their campaigns, taxpayers in her district could end up paying for the campaigns of Assembly candidates in other districts they may oppose but can’t vote against. 

The taxpayer financing provisions of Assemblymember Hancock’s legislation are in direct conflict with provisions of the Political Reform Act of 1974. That law prohibits a candidate from accepting public funds for the purpose of seeking elective office. Because of this conflict, with law enacted by initiative, AB 583 as presently worded, must ultimately be approved or rejected by the voters if it passes the Legislature and the Governor. 

Assemblymember Hancock’s legislation is also in direct conflict with her constituents’ preferences. In the 2004 general election, voters in Berkeley resoundingly rejected public financing of political campaigns at the municipal level. We felt that out taxes were better spent on teachers, public safety, and public works instead of on more politicians. 

There is a simple amendment to Assemblymember Hancock’s legislation that would eliminate any costs to the taxpayer, and prevent the politicians in Sacramento from tapping our wallets for their financial gain. AB 583 establishes a “Clean Money Fund” to finance its implementation. Revenues to this fund may come from voluntary donations and fines levied for breaches to campaign laws and regulations. However, as passed by the Assembly, this bill also allows the legislature to appropriate money collected form taxes, (i.e. from eh General Fund) to this special fund. By simply prohibiting the appropriation of tax-generated revenues to this “Clean Money” fund, Assemblymember Hancock could guarantee us that her proposal would indeed use only “clean” money. 

But don’t take my word on any of this. See for yourself by visiting Assemblymember Hancock’s website for a copy of her legislation and analyses by Assembly committee consultants. If you agree with me, please let Assemblymember Hancock know, before this political gravy train goes much further. 


Keith Winnard is a Berkeley resident.