Many Californians dread the mass of complex propositions on every imaginable subject that confronts us every statewide election. This November, though, features a system-changing initiative that must not be allowed to get lost in the clutter, a measure that offers fundamental change to the system of legalized bribery that has too long passed in this state for representative democracy.
What would we call it if a baseball player gave the umpire a $25,000 check before sliding into home plate? What would we call it if a lawyer offered a judge a similar payment before he announced his verdict? What do we call it when corporations give public officials such checks before they make the public policy that shapes the context of our lives?
Proposition 89 would establish for the first time in California a statewide system of public campaign financing. Not another hodgepodge of hard-to-enforce restrictions on donations, or new “reporting requirements” for reports few read, but a system where most campaign expenses would be paid with public funds, modeled on systems working well in Maine and Arizona.
Prop. 89 would dramatically reduce the power of corporations who have been able to shape the Sacramento political environment, using money to elect people who owe them something and will keep needing their help—whether these obligations are made explicit or not.
Most of the political establishment will oppose this reform at first—because, if nothing else, they’re not used to it. This applies even to many politicians with a strong sense of the public interest. They’ve gotten where they are under the current system. Change is disorienting. The new law will also give unknown challengers a better chance.
So this was never going to pass the Legislature, let alone the Governor. But this issue, so central to what our democracy is, is too important to leave to politicians any longer.
Opponents note Prop. 89 means a slight increase in the tax on corporate profits, which will still be below its 1996 level. Corporations already spend on campaigns. Now it will be through taxes, rather than buying politicians’ good will. That will mean savings for the state’s people much greater than the system’s modest cost.
Any proposition requires many detailed provisions, each debatable and potentially flawed. Opponents will seek to sap support through pointing out details that may seem imperfect to various voters. The comparison will be between this measure’s details and a mythical ideal rather than the grossly corrupt system now in place. The law’s details can be “fine-tuned” into the future. Let’s not let the imaginary perfect be the enemy of the good.
Under 89, accepting public money is voluntary. Candidates for state office get allotments based on office at primary and general election stages. Primary candidates show public support to qualify by raising a specified number of five-dollar “seed money” contributions. Third parties get proportional support. Beyond seed money, “clean money” candidates get no private contributions and must agree also to debate opponents. Prop. 89 dramatically reduces maximum contributions to non-participating candidates by corporations, unions, committees, and. Candidates can reject public funds and use their own. If self-funded candidates outspend “clean money” guidelines, publicly funded opponents can get five times their normal allotment to match them.
Similar measures in Maine and Arizona have facilitated passage of legislation long blocked by corporations, reduced rates at which incumbents are re-elected, and produced a far more diverse candidate pool.
Passing Prop. 89 is the reform that will make other reforms possible. Perhaps most importantly, it will make the system one we don’t have to be ashamed to explain honestly to our children. It is a rare chance, in the welter of propositions, to make democracy real.
Steve Koppman is an Oakland resident.