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Monday, April 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

CA Political Candidates Raise $1B Despite Limits

(CN) - Despite a $3,000 limit on campaign contributions passed in 2000, political candidates in California have since raised $1 billion from supporters and those seeking to gain influence, according to a report released Tuesday by the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The goal of reducing special interest money in politics, said the report, remains "elusive."

"Public sentiment is clear. In election after election, voters have said they want to reduce the influence of special interest money in the political process. This study demonstrates that the goal of reducing special interest money remains elusive," read the report.

Of the $1 billion raised, 58 percent of that fell cleanly under Proposition 34 limits. The rest was funneled through legal, but indirect means.

67% of Californians believe the state is run by a few big interests while 24% said the state is run for the benefit of the people, found a survey done by the Public Policy Institute of California.

While big interests and the interests of California citizens are not always mutually exclusive, the findings correspond well to the substantial fundraising reported by the Commission, which can appear to exert undo influence over politicians.

Since the passage of Proposition 34, candidates have turned to other fundraising measures to maintain their high levels of revenue

Between 2001 and 2006, the Commission observed a 200,000 percent spike in contributions to Candidate Controlled Ballot Measure Committees, and a nearly 3,000 percent increase in behested payments between 2003 and 2008.

Candidate Controlled Ballot Measure Committees are set up by candidates to fight or promote a ballot measure. Many candidates, however, use these accounts as slush funds, and spend the money without regard to any ballot measure. Together, they collected $150 million since the passage of Proposition 34. Donations are unlimited.

To restore the committees to their original role, the Commission now requires candidates to include their name and the words "ballot measure" in the title of the committee. The candidate now must identify the specific ballot measure he plans to influence.

Behested payments are funds raised for governmental or charitable purposes, and they earned at least $40 million since 2000. These payments are unlimited and must only be reported if the contribution from a single donor per year is $5,000 or more. This means that all payments worth less than $5,000 did not go into the $40 million calculation.

The Committee, alarmed by the 3,000 percent jump in these payments since Proposition 34 passed, now posts all reported behested payments in state races on fppc.ca.gov.

Candidates can also campaign for multiple offices if they want to avoid limitations to their contributions. Between 2001 and 2008, this method earned $53 million. In this case, elected officials set up fundraising committees for multiple offices, regardless of whether they actually run for all the offices. A donator can contribute the maximum of $3,000 for each office sought by the candidate, but all the money still goes to the same single official.

There is also the problem of the exempt committees which existed before 2000. Between 2001 and 2008, these committees earned a total of $36 million. Under the new rules, the Commission now requires that the candidate report the specific purpose of any donations to these committees. Candidates must also include their name, the office they seek, and the year of the election in the title of their committee.

Legal Defense Funds play a much smaller role in skirting Proposition 34. They only raised $4 million since the proposition's passage. Nonetheless, the Commission sees them as a way to unduly influence candidates. A Legal Defense Fund is kept by candidates to cover any legal costs associated with official duties, but they've been know to be applied for travel and fundraising events.

Contributions are unlimited, but new rules require that candidates specify the specific legal dispute the fund is intended for and the money may only go towards direct legal costs. Any excess money must be returned and the accounts must be closed 90 days after the dispute is resolved. Candidates must also include their name in the title of the fund.

Since 2001, Officeholder Accounts only collected a measly $2 million in comparison to the $1 billion, probably because these accounts are limited. The acceptable contribution amount varies depending on the office the candidate is seeking, but all are restricted to a certain amount each calendar year. The Commission pointed out in their report that even under the restrictions, candidates are able to accumulate more than planned because, for example, a two year term overlaps with three calendar years.

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