The Lie Behind Public Financing of Political Campaigns

campaign-financeDemocrats in the California Legislature have presented Gov. Jerry Brown with a bill that would legalize public financing of political campaigns, similar to initiatives that have taken root in several cities and states across the country. This is not only a bad idea that will in fact result in more special interest involvement in elections, it also is an end-around by the Legislature to impose its will against that of the citizens they represent. The California Political Reform Act states that no taxpayer money may be spent by the government on political campaigns. This political spending provision was passed by voter referendum in 1988.

The California Constitution requires that any measure passed by the voters can be undone only by a second ballot measure, unless provided for otherwise in the act. When this ban on taxpayer funding of political campaigns was passed, it specified that no changes could be made unless it was by passage of a subsequent ballot measure, or by a two-thirds majority of the Legislature; and only changes that “would further the purposes” of the act would be allowed via legislation. Unsurprisingly, Democratic lawmakers have adapted the Orwellian premise that furthering the purpose of a voter-backed ban on taxpayer financing of political campaigns means undoing the law without assent from the voters.

The disregard that lawmakers in California have for their constituents is clear, and it should be clearer still to all Californians what this type of legislation will do to the political process. Far from ridding politics of special interest influence, forcing taxpayers to fund political candidacies that they oppose will increase the power and leverage that certain special interests wield in the state capitol.

To become eligible for taxpayer campaign funds, a candidate must first accumulate a certain number of small, private donations. Knowing this, special interest organizations can simply direct members and supporters to contribute enough small-dollar donations to meet the public financing threshold. In this way, a special interest group can turn a number of small donations into massive taxpayer funds directed to their preferred candidate, while the special interest group can still buoy their candidate with independent expenditures. The result is that the hand-picked candidate has the benefit of special interest support and the tax dollars of hundreds of thousands of voters, many of whom may not even support the candidate.

Supporters of taxpayer-funded political campaigns like to think that they are eliminating a great evil from politics. But a publicly funded candidate is under the same influence of special interests as a privately funded candidate, the only difference being that the candidate accepting taxpayer dollars can exude some moral superiority while still under the thumb of their special interest benefactors.

The truth is that money is a great barrier to entry in politics, and incumbents already in office know that. To effectively communicate a message to voters does, in fact, require money. The candidates best-armed to communicate a message to voters are incumbents, as they have already proven their worth to one special interest group or another, and have been rewarded with campaign funding. A lesser-known challenger does not have the same ability to reach out to a special interest group that can bundle enough small donations to reach the threshold for public funding of a campaign.

Democrats in Sacramento, as eager as ever to retain and expand power, have now conceived of a plan to limit political competition by making it more difficult for candidates to compete against incumbents that are backed by powerful unions, trial lawyers and other progressive interest groups. Rather than give greater voice to candidates that are supported by voters and not special interests, this misleading legislative proposal ensures that taxpayers will be forced to fund candidates who articulate views and opinions they may vehemently oppose. Better yet, their proposal to have your tax dollars subsidize their political campaigns, regardless if you might disagree with their ideas, is in direct defiance of the will of the voters and of California law.

Special interest groups are very powerful in California because our state government is very powerful. Government overreach pervades every facet of our day-to-day life in California, and special interests will continue to lobby lawmakers to gain preferential treatment from the Leviathan. If lawmakers were truly interested in reducing the influence of special interest money in politics, they would not force taxpayers to fund their campaigns, but rather advocate for legislation that reduces the power and influence the government has over the people. But how likely is that?

Alexander Tomescu is an associate attorney at Wewer & Lacy, LLP, focusing in the practice of election and campaign law.