Sunday, November 08, 2009

They Got Their Knickers In A Twist

Lobbyists are trying to short circuit a rather interesting pilot program in public financing of elections in California. They've filed a law suit to remove a proposition from the June, 2010 ballot which would charge lobbyists now to fund the Secretary of State races in 2014 and 2018.

From the Sacramento Bee:

Authored by former Assemblywoman and current state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, the measure would hit lobbyists, lobbyist employers and lobbying firms for $700 each to help pay for the campaigns for two secretary of state races.

"Right now, politicians in Sacramento spend way too much time raising money instead of governing," said Derek Cressman, the Western states regional director for Common Cause. "This would make it possible for candidates to reject big money from special interests and still run a competitive campaign." ...

If voters approve the measure, it would raise about $34 million through the $700 assessments on the state's 1,239 registered lobbyists, its 383 lobbying firms and its 3,153 lobbyist employers. To qualify for the public campaign cash, the secretary of state candidates would first have to garner $5 contributions from 7,500 registered voters.

Candidates would be allowed to raise $75,000 in seed money through contributions no greater than $100 to get their campaigns going.

That sounds like a pretty good idea, yes?

Well, not to the lobbyists who are suddenly very concerned about the denial of their First Amendment rights.

The lobbyists say the measure to make them collectively pay approximately $34 million to fund California's statewide secretary of state campaigns in 2014 and 2018 unfairly restricts their free speech rights and restricts people's constitutional right to petition their government.

Oh, dear: the poor lobbyists won't be able to buy the Secretary of State (the office which regulates lobbyists) with heavy campaign contributions. And if the pilot program works out, they just might not be able to buy state legislators and state officers either. What a horror that would be!

While I suspect the "free speech rights" are at the core of the law suit, one lobbyist, either inadvertently or with unusual candor, suggests the real philosophical basis for the objection to the slightest suggestion of public financing of elections.

Gualco says any juice his people enjoy is only the result of the organizations that hire them in "the marketplace of ideas."

Gualco, whose own firm has done $2 million in business so far this year representing agriculture, water, manufacturing, energy and other interests, said paid professional advocates represent everybody from 4-H Clubs on up and that the advocacy industry reflects "the way our system has matured over the years."

"Why do we want to make it more difficult for that marketplace to function?" Gualco asked. "We're already well regulated."
[Emphasis added]

So, that's what elected officials are, commodities in the marketplace, available to the highest bidder, which will always be the people with the most money, not the average working citizen.

So, will the lawsuit prevail? Probably not at this point because the issue is not ripe. The proposition hasn't been passed by the electorate. There's a chance it will fail, and courts really hate wasting time on a pointless case. If the proposition does pass, however, there's a better than even chance the proposition will be thrown out as a violation of First Amendment rights, thanks to a US Supreme Court decision that held that campaign contributions are a form of free speech. I don't imagine the current Supreme Court would rule any differently in this case.

That, however, doesn't mean that a public financing law has no chance, as those states with that kind of law on the books have shown. The problem with this law is that the state isn't financing the election, a portion of the electorate (lobbyists) is. Given the current state of California's finances, that's the only way such a pilot program could pass the state legislature and get signed off by Governor Schwarzenegger (although I'm still surprised he signed the bill).

All of that said, should the proposition pass, it will be a strong signal that the people of California are ready for the public financing of elections. I'm willing to walk the neighborhoods and ring the doorbells for that.

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