Bill Boyarsky
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L.A. public campaign finance law threatened

The Los Angeles city public finance law is in trouble. The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority is likely to overturn an important part of Arizona’s finance law, which is like L.A’s. If that happens, L.A. will have to follow the court ruling and its statute will be greatly weakened.

At issue is the provision of the city law providing for partial public financing of city election campaigns. Candidates who can show serious public support—collecting a certain amount of contributions on their own—are entitled to city funds. Including the primary and general elections, these range from up to $225,000 for city council candidates to $1,467,000 for mayor. In addition, the city will provide more funds to candidates who are outspent by a candidate who is not accepting public funds and is not subject to its requirements, including participation in debates and spending limits.
The Arizona law has a similar provision. When an Arizona publicly financed candidate is being outspent by a candidate outside the system, the state provides a certain amount matching funds.

The idea behind these provisions are to level the playing field, taking away some of the advantages of rich or well funded high spenders. But at a hearing on a suit to overturn this section of the Arizona law, Chief Justice John Roberts objected to whole notion of leveling the playing field.

This hostility toward public financing was behind a previous high court conservative majority vote in the Citzens United. As a result, corporations and other organizations to give unlimited amounts of money to so-called independent groups that support candidates. Given the vote on Citizens United, it appears the high court will rule against the Arizona statute.

“Depressing,” is how the principal author of the Los Angeles law describes the situation. Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said that if the Supreme Court weakens the Arizona law, Los Angeles would have to abandon its matching provision.

The goal of the court conservative majority and the conservatives who support them, Stern said, is “non-regulation” of campaign finance and “let the market place run wild.” It would, he said, unleash a “tsunami” of campaign contributions.

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