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Lobbyists become easy targets for campaign finance reform in California

by Susannah Kopecky, published

Ah, the perennially despised lobbyist: always a convenient whipping boy, and just vague enough of a term not to incite specific rancor. For many years, politicians have blamed the nameless, faceless “lobbyists” for corruption and stagnancy.

Proposition 15, if voted into law, would sanction a repeal on the statewide ban of public funding for political campaigns. According to the Office of the Secretary of State, Proposition 15 would begin to fund public campaigns through additional taxation.

No, this measure does not call for an increase in the individual income tax.  It places the burden squarely on the shoulders of “lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers” (While “voluntary contributions” will be welcomed, the Secretary of State’s office admits that the bulk of the funds would indeed come from lobbyists). 

By taxing lobbyists, lobbying groups and lobbying-affiliated organizations at about $350 per year, supporters of the measure hope to roll in about $6 million over a four-year period. The millions of dollars would be bundled as grant money, to be set aside for Secretary of State candidates in 2014 and 2018.  Candidates showing healthy fundraising skills could choose to stop fundraising at a certain point, and have their funds matched by funds from the state coffers, under the understanding that no more private funds could be brought in.

Such groups as the League of Women Voters and Californians for Fair Elections support Proposition 15. The latter declares that the “outrageous” amount of money in politics is responsible for too much corruption, and the enactment of Proposition 15 would “Change the way we finance election campaigns so politicians stay focused on the job we sent them to do!”

While such a statement makes for nice wishful thinking, when a door closes, a window opens.  If lobbyists are fined and shunned, some alternate pressure will continue to be exerted on politicians, albeit under a new name, not to mention the questionable constitutionality of such a levy.

Groups such as Stop Prop 15 are staunchly opposed to the measure, calling Proposition 15 a tax-raising trick that “Does not stop the influence of special interest money.” Stop Prop 15 also points to two recent public campaign financing efforts which were defeated over the last decade, adding the opinion that “Taxpayer financing of political campaigns is a bad idea.” One of the messages of Stop Prop 15 is that the proposition is not an actual reform, and today, with a tanking state economy, “Giving taxpayer money to politicians to fund their campaigns” isn’t a pressing need for California.

While Stop Prop 15 emphasizes the repeated public rejection of public state campaign funding, the state legislature does not appear to have received the memo. Ironically, in a 2008 vote on the proposition, members of both the California State Assembly and State Senate overwhelmingly voted in favor of the measure. This is particularly interesting, as politicians are notoriously the partners and targets of special interest groups which lobby government officials on their behalf.

While many lobbying groups are vilified as narrow-minded groups only looking out for themselves, many lobbying groups represent the will of millions of American voters. Lobbyists, loved or hated, are another check in the democratic system.  Sometimes by exerting pressure on politicians and presenting a re-election challenge, government officials think twice before taking a particular course of action.

Of course, on the other hand, lobbyists have also been connected to backroom deals, sticky money exchanges, and intense pushes for personal desires.

And still, a disturbing question arises: why exactly should lobbyists have to pay for public funding for candidates they may  not support, but may in fact be actively working to defeat?

There really is no good reason behind this mechanism, other than the fact that lobbyists make easy victims, and state officials would be happy to place the blame on anyone but themselves.  Does anyone else long for the days of President Truman and his “The buck stops here” mantra?

Reform for the sake of public betterment is a positive thing in many cases; however, simply cloaking desire under the guise of “reform” does not a reform make.

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