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State Campaign Law Does Not Limit Troublesome Independent Expenditures

Published on Thursday, October 21, 2021 | 11:41 am

A local law limiting individual campaign contributions cannot keep powerful unions and corporations out of local campaigns. 

The City Council’s Legislative Policy Committee will discuss campaign contribution limits at 2 p.m. Tuesday.

The matter was sent to the committee after a discussion at Monday’s council meeting during which the council considered voting to pass an ordinance that would continue to allow local candidates to raise unlimited funds in response to Assembly Bill 571, a new state law that limits individual campaign donations to $4,900.

However, the council did not conduct its first reading of the ordinance on Monday, and in response to disapproval by some local and nonlocal residents decided to send the matter back to the committee for further consideration. 

Three councilmembers — Gene Masuda, Jessica Rivas and Vice Mayor Andy Wilson — appeared ready to vote against the ordinance on Monday.

According to a presentation before the committee, the city is powerless to limit an independent expenditure (IE), and the state law places no limitations on them. 

Using IEs, unions and corporations will still be able to spend  thousands of dollars to help elect local candidates, without ever communicating with the candidate.

One local political insider who asked not to be named said that if the city does institute campaign limits, unchecked independent expenditures will become all the more important.

“It will be like a school of sharks smelling blood in the water,” the source said.

An independent expenditure supports the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate, but is not made in coordination with any candidate or campaign.

The money can be used for ads, robocalls, mailers, yard signs and other communications giving a candidate wide visibility. 

To make matters worse, IEs typically use fictitious names like “Pasadenans for a Better Tomorrow,” making it impossible to know where the money is coming from.

The Pasadena Police Officers Association (PPOA) donated $50,000 in independent expenditures in the last City Council elections. All told, the PPOA gave more in independent expenditures than campaign donations, but the group made the expenditures through its political action committee which did identify the source.

Because the expenditures can be done without the knowledge of candidates, Councilman Gene Masuda, who largely self finances his campaigns, had no idea about the independent expenditure, according to one article.  

According to an article in the Huffington Post, “the growth of independent expenditures has further privileged an already privileged class of wealthy political donors.” 

IEs could also be problematic for local challengers struggling to connect with voters. 

Those candidates could be forced to spend time tracking down the source of attack ads, taking away precious time needed to interact with voters. 

Independent expenditures briefly came up during Monday’s discussion, but none of the comments from local and some nonlocal residents opposing the ordinance mentioned it.  

According to the Public Affairs Council, a group of nonpartisan and nonpolitical professionals that advance the field of public affairs, campaign limits don’t clean up campaigns, but instead provide an advantage to incumbents.

Political science professors from the University of Missouri have studied almost 66,000 state legislative races over three decades, ending in 2018, looking at the effects of state laws that limit contributions from corporations and individuals. They concluded there are “strong pro-incumbent effects from both full public financing and prohibitions on corporate independent expenditures.”

Other reports claim that campaign limits force challengers to spend time playing catch up against incumbents and lessens their time speaking to the voters.

“A system allowing unlimited contributions to a candidate for elective county or city office creates the risk and the perception that elected officials in those jurisdictions are beholden to their contributors and will act in the best interest of those contributors at the expense of the people,” wrote Jon Fuhrman of the local nonpartisan political action group ACT.

The nomination period for the June 7 election opens on Feb. 14. Seats for districts 3, 5 and 7 will be decided in the next election.

People opposing the Pasadena ordinances also cited Los Angeles which has an $800 limit on campaign donations and is much bigger than Pasadena.

However, three L.A. politicians have been indicted on corruption charges. 

On Wednesday L.A. Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas was suspended from office by a divided LA City Council. After being suspended, he entered a not-guilty plea to federal bribery and conspiracy charges.

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