Bill Boyarsky
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Muddy days at city hall

The city hall maneuvering over full public financing of Los Angeles elections is entering a new and muddy phase.

Muddy to me, anyway, but what do I know? Iím just an ethics commissioner and weíre about as welcome in city hall back rooms as an advocate of democracy is in Putinís Kremlin.

In my last post on this matter, I reported that the councilís Rules and Election Committee was about to prepare a summary of the various versions of public financing that are floating around.

The ethics commission has an entry. So does Clean Money, the organization that has led the fight for full public financing. Weíre reformers. Theyíre reformers. We donít agree. I tried to figure out a logical reason for our disagreement. But I canít. So I must rely on my experience of covering reformers. Since I first met reformers, in the 60s, Iíve noticed theyíre always trying to destroy each other.

The big difference between the ethics commissioners and that of Clean Money , I think, is over how much money a candidate must collect to be eligible for public funds. We proposed that council candidates be allowed to raise the money in $250 portions. Citywide candidates could raise money in $500 chunks. Clean Money, warning that our plan favors fat cats, wants the money collected in $10 portions.

The biggest issue facing all sides at city hall is financing. Should it be a tax increase or come from existing revenues? This is huge. Polls tend to show voters favor the idea of public finance. But the electorate overwhelmingly defeated a ballot measure that would have increased the corporations tax to finance public financing of state elections. The measure lost in Los Angeles County 1,325,761 to 508,355.

This is a complex issue and knowing the details doesnít tell the whole story. Whatís really going on? Letís look at the players:

The most important are the minority of city council members and staff in favor of public financing. They want to write the legislation in a way that wonít cause trouble for them and their successors down the road. Most especially, they donít want to be nailed for some future reporting or spending violation.

The ethics commission is another player. The commission staff did most of the work in preparing the public financing proposal. But the council dislikes (thatís putting it mildly) the commission because it occasionally fines council members and their contributors for campaign law violations. They want the commission and its staff out of the picture. Instead, the council wants its legislative analyst to write the law.

The Clean Money organization is a major player. It has a cadre of grassroots supporters, lots of city hall smarts and a plan it believes is superior to anything the ethics commission can offer.

The lobbyists and their clients are also behind the scenes players. Some of them actually favor public finance. Others oppose it. But they want nothing that will lessen their influence at city hall.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a non-player at this point. But the mayor, who shares the councilís low opinion of the ethics commission, will step in eventually.

None of this means much right now. Any public finance measure would have to go before the voters. And, as the vote on the statewide measure showed, it would not have much chance of passing.

Only after a scandal will voters approve such a radical concept. Thatís how the present city system of partial public financing was approved. But if history is any gauge, scandal is inevitable. When it comes, each of the players at city hall want to make sure their solution is the one that becomes law.


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