Stop Campaign Gravy Train

February 28, 2003
Los Angeles Times

A plan to narrow today’s loophole of choice in campaign finance laws will come before the Los Angeles City Council next month. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians provides a timely example of why the council should act.

The tribe, which runs a casino near Banning, reported to the city Ethics Commission Wednesday that it was spending $75,000 on mailers opposing former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa in the 14th City Council District race and $20,000 to support former Assemblyman Roderick Wright in the 10th Council District.

Because these are so-called independent expenditures — that is, neither donated to nor coordinated with candidates or campaign officials — they are not subject to voter-approved rules governing how candidates in city elections raise and spend money. The tribe was merely required to report its spending.

In 1990, city voters put limits on the amount contributors can give candidates — $500 in a City Council race and $1,000 in citywide races — and approved matching public funds for candidates who abided by voluntary spending limits. The goal was to curb the influence of big donors and ensure more competitive races. A 2001 study by the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies found that the reforms were working — until big donors found a loophole to exploit. In the 1989 election, independent spending totaled $23,700. By 2001, it had soared to $3.2 million.

The Morongo Band, which earlier spent $200,000 opposing Villaraigosa’s mayoral candidacy, points to the city’s large Native American population to justify its outsized interest in Los Angeles elections. Anyone can look at Villaraigosa’s Assembly record and see another motive: He helped push through a pact that regulated Las Vegas-style slot machines on reservations and required tribes to allow collective bargaining. The independent spending loophole allows the tribe to mete out punishment.

No city or state has found a way to legally ban independent spending. But the Ethics Commission recommends a way to reduce donors’ incentive for using the loophole. Now, independent spending above a certain size triggers the lifting of spending limits for all candidates in the race, including the candidate benefiting from the independent campaign. The proposed rule would lift the spending cap, raise contribution rates and speed up matching funds for all candidates except those who benefited from the outside expenditures.

Such a change would be in keeping with voters’ intentions expressed more than a decade ago. Voters want to restrict the contributions of a single group or individual. It’s one way to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics.