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Task Force Recommends Campaign Contribution Limits in Mayoral, City Council Races

Charter Reform Task Force votes 7-2 with one member absent

Published on Thursday, May 23, 2024 | 5:02 am

Earlier this month, the Charter Reform Task Force voted 7-2, with one member absent, to recommend that the City Council establish campaign contribution limits by ordinance.

“It is recommended that the City Council set by ordinance campaign contribution limits in the amount of $2,500 per person/entity, per election for the Mayor’s race; and $1,000 per person/entity, per election for each Council District race,” according to the recommendation. “This recommendation is subject to the City Attorney’s Office providing a framework for enforcement equivalent to or exceeding the enforcement provided by the FPPC.”

Per the ordinance, the City Council would not be able to vote to raise the limits for two election cycles.

The limits would set the amount of money a candidate can receive from a single source during an election.

The City Council will receive the Task Force’s final report in June. In July, the Council will vote to decide which items will appear on the November ballot.

The Task Force also made recommendations on how to fill vacancies on the City Council and the Vice Mayor, as well as on term limits and compensation.

No recommendation was made on changing the timing of the mayoral election.

In 2021, AB 571 became law, requiring cities and counties to adopt local contribution limits or default to the state limits, which are currently $5,500.

Locally, there were no limits prior to the law taking effect.

Prior to Jan. 1, 2021, Pasadena and many cities in California had no contribution limits. Contribution limits were discussed by the City Council. An ordinance was crafted in 2021 that would have continued to allow candidates to raise money without limits.

Only Councilmember Jess Rivas opposed the ordinance, which did not receive the two readings needed for it to become law.

After taking no action, the City defaulted to AB 571 statewide campaign contribution limits.

Local residents supporting limits claim they lower the risk of corruption. Others claim that lower contribution limits would increase the candidate pool.

“Whether we acknowledge it or not, money equals voice, and voice equals power. In a city like Pasadena, which already has a wide income gap, it’s important to set policies that make sure all residents are represented and have their voices heard,” said Gloria Newton in correspondence to the Task Force. “Imagine what a mom or dad working for close to minimum wage would be able to contribute versus a professional with a six-figure income or a retired person benefiting from accrued generational wealth. A lower limit on campaign contributions would be one step in leveling this very uneven playing field.”

However, since the $5,500 limit was set, there has not been an influx of candidates, and except for one race, the incumbents have continued to dominate the elections.

Consultants Baker Tilly said they found studies recommending lowering contribution limits in federal and state elections to reduce the influence of large donors on elected officials.

“We did not find one proving a direct connection between lowering limits and larger candidate pools,” the consultants said.

Even if the City caps contribution limits, it cannot cap high-dollar contributions that will enter local races through independent expenditures.

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, independent expenditures are harder to track than campaign contributions.

Although the data showed a rise in independent expenditures since AB 571 became effective, the report stated the sample size was too small to prove a causal connection to AB 571. “Ultimately, a direct causal relationship between lower limits was not conclusively proven. However, in certain scenarios, with the right issues and circumstances present, independent expenditure clearly provides an alternative pathway for money to play a role in local campaigns and affect local election results.”

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