Taxpayer Group Fights California Political Reform

SACRAMENTO (CN) — In the run-up to the presidential election, California lawmakers were busy tinkering with the state’s revered Political Reform Act, passed after the Watergate scandal to inspire public faith in state politics by introducing campaign spending limits and lobbying guidelines.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1107 on Sept. 9, eliminating a longstanding, voter-approved ban on public financing of local campaigns. While the bill breezed through the Legislature, its critics have not quieted down.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and a former judge sued the governor on Monday, claiming that changes to the Political Reform Act require voter approval.

The conservative taxpayers association asked the Sacramento Superior Court to prevent Brown and the Fair Political Practices Commission from spending public money to implement the “ineffective amendments.”

“This action challenges the Legislature’s decision to undo ‘what the people have done,’ without the electorate’s consent,” the complaint states.

To the dismay of many California conservatives, the Democratic-sponsored bill amended the act and opened the door for state and local governments to create public campaign finance programs for candidates.

Supporters, including SB 1107 author Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, call the measure a way to fight mega-donors and special interests by giving local municipalities the ability to boost candidates’ coffers with public money. They say it could help level the playing field for candidates running against deep-pocketed incumbents.

“Californians are demanding greater accountability from their elected officials, and rightfully so. Anything we can do to empower communities to reduce the influence of money in campaigns is a good thing,” Allen said after Brown signed the bill.

The Political Reform Act of 1974 created spending limits for statewide races, forced lobbyists to register with the state and founded a watchdog agency. The act was amended in 1988 to close a loophole that allowed public financing of campaigns.

Only charter cities in California are allowed to offer public funding to campaigns. Six cities provide some amount of public funding, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.

Allen said lifting the ban will “amplify everyday Californians” who are under strict donation limits by allowing their local and state governments to match and exceed their donations. Under SB 1107, municipalities would create their own guidelines for doling out publicly funded donations, potentially through local ballot initiatives.

But the opponents say the new amendments should have been put to voters.

“We think this is a pretty clear violation of the [state] constitution,” said Anthony Caso, plaintiffs’ attorney. “Any actions taken to enforce this are going to be an illegal expenditure of taxpayer money.”

Political law attorney Chuck Bell and Allen Dickerson with the Center for Competitive Politics also represent the plaintiffs.

The taxpayer association and Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and retired San Mateo County Superior Court judge, request an injunction to stop the amendments from taking effect on Jan. 1. They want SB 1107 ruled invalid and sent to voters on a statewide ballot.

“California voters decided to prohibit taxpayer dollars from being used as political slush funds,” taxpayers association president Jon Coupal said in a statement. “If politicians want to change that, they have to take the issue back to the voters.”

The governor’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, which should have come as no surprise. Before the final floor vote, lawmakers were warned of the likelihood of expensive legal challenges to SB 1107, in an analysis by the Senate Rules Committee.

“There is a good probability that this bill could result in litigation challenging whether the bill meets the statutory requirement to further the purpose of the Political Reform Act, which does not provide for public financing,” the report states. “The state could therefore incur significant legal costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”